Italian Christmas Traditions
Italian Christmas Traditions
This week I have been asking my students if they are familiar with some of Italy’s Christmas traditions. Surprisingly the majority said they aren't, so for our last week of Italian language classes we will be reading about Italian Christmas traditions while we enjoy a sip of caffe` or limoncello with a little bit of traditional Italian Christmas cake ‘il Pandoro.’ Excuse the lack of photo's in this blog...it’s a little hard to find any when the last Christmas you spent with la famiglia (family) in Italy was in 2004 and photos were taken with a camera that had a roll of film you’d have to get processed. Before the kids came along we used to alternate between my family and my husband’s, so every second Natale (Christmas) was in Italy.
If there’s one season I am not too fond of, it’s winter. The long Italian winter was one of the reasons I swore I’d never be able to live there for good, hence our annual return always being during the summer months. But there is that one thing I miss dearly about Italy during the freezing cold months and that is Christmas with all of it’s traditions, and spending those wonderful moments with our family and friends. There have been many laughs and fun games of tombola on an overly full belly following a Christmas feast. Luckily my nonni (grandparents) continued the traditions when they migrated to Australia like most other Italian families did... but out on the streets & in the shops. there's always that little something missing.
Christmas in Italy doesn’t show it’s face in the streets, shops or homes until the 8th of December, the day of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. In Italy the festive season is more about family than it is about consumerism, and you can really ‘feel’ it all around you. I know that sounds so cliche, but it really is like that. Of course this would be different if you were holidaying there, but for those who have family, it really is the best!
What can you do on holiday in Italy during the Christmas Season?
In pretty much every citta` (city) and paese (town), you will be able to lose yourself in the many little markets that take place. You'll no doubt find a religious event here and there, various little concerts, and you’ll also be able to enjoy the Christmas lights and decorations that veil the towns and cities. Italian Christmas traditions are heavily based on religion, so there are many pretty churches to visit where you will be able to see the stunning Nativity Scenes (il presepio). Italians are huge on Nativity Scenes, but take note… you won’t be seeing any sign of ‘bambino Gesu`’ (baby Jesus) in his crib until la Vigilia di Natale (Christmas Eve)! Some of the most beautiful Nativity Scenes can be found in the stunning city of Naples and are a must see. Some people dedicate a whole room in their home to creating one, and you might even find a live presentation of a Nativity Scene if you are lucky. When it’s freezing cold outside, it’s a great activity to give the kids to do, but I can’t imagine my kids getting out of the pool to stay inside to build a nativity scene!
Traditional Christmas ‘cibi’ (meals)
Traditionally on Christmas Eve, Italians get together with the family to indulge in a feast of fish before heading off to midnight mass. No meat is eaten on the day before Christmas.
Instead, on Christmas day the family get together again to enjoy a feast of everything! Each region in Italy has their own traditional dishes. Generally we begin with an antipasto, then onto some sort of pasta dish, a meat dish, a side dishes and then most families all over Italy will enjoy either panettone or pandoro, and perhaps some torrone (noughat), along with some other type of desert.
Dov'e` Babbo Natale? (Where’s Father Christmas?)
In Italy, our Father Christmas is known as La Befana. She is an old kind witch who takes presents to well behaved children during the night and leaves coals in the stockings of those who have been naughty!
La befana is celebrated on the 6th of January, the day of the Epifany, which is the day the 3 wise men arrived at baby Jesus’ crib.
Apparently, 3 wise men were following the star in the sky to find the Son of God and passed her house to ask for directions. La Befana wasn’t sure of how to get there, but took them in for the night so they could rest. The next day they took off and asked La Befana if she’d like to join them but she was too busy, only to find later on she had a change of heart, and went off searching for the 3 wise men to catch up with them to bring baby Jesus a gift. She was not able to find them, so to this day she is still searching and takes presents to all the little children in the world on her way on the the night of the 5th of January.
We have promised our children we will brace the cold and snow for them one year and spend a Christmas in Italy very soon. I know I’ll probably curse the cold weather the whole time, but I also know the novelty of the snow will be a great experience for them and there will be some fond memories made with the only ‘cugini’ (cousins) they have, which is definitely worth shivering for!