Presented to the General Membership November 28, 2011
The traditional greeting of this season is “Merry Christmas”. But, if we were in Italy, we’d be saying …….
Spending Christmas in Italy sounds wonderful and hopefully, one day we may get to celebrate there. For now, I thought it might be interesting to see what we know and don’t know about how Christmas is celebrated in Italy.
Italians love a party and Christmas in Italy is no different. Christmas celebrations officially start on December 8 with the feast of L’Immaculata Concezione. The Christmas Novena begins on December 17. Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are of course celebrated, but the Christmas season doesn't officially conclude until January 6. This is the Feast of Epiphany. Epiphany is the main day of gift giving in Italy. Tradition tells us that Epiphany is when the Wise Men brought gifts to Gesu Bambino. In Italy, presents are brought to the children by La Befana, a kindly old witch. La Befana was asked to accompany the Wise Men to find Gesu Bambino, but La Befana was too busy sweeping her house to go with the Wise Men. Later, she regeted her bad decision. Because of this, La Befana flys on her broom still looking for Baby Jesus. She brings presents to the homes of children, hoping to find him in the homes she visits. She fills children’s shoes or stockings with gifts for good children or il carbone (coal) if they have been bad. If you live in Venice, your gifts might be brought by Santa Lucia instead.
Since Italian Catholics observe Christmas Eve as a day of abstinence from meat, it is traditional to serve a meal of 7 fishes. The seven fishes represents the seven sacraments. There are references to meals of 9 fishes, the number of the Trinity squared. You could find any combinations of seafood, but the most common dises are baccala (cod), shrimp, zuppa de pesce, seafood salad, clams, mussels, calamari (squid) and scungilli (conch). Eel, also called Capitone, is considered a delicacy and is served roasted baked or fried in Southern Italy.
Desserts are deserve a special note. Panettone has become a traditional Christmas dessert. It originated in Milan, but is popular throughout Italy at Christmas time. If you’ve never had this, it is a tall cylindrical sweet bread filled with dried fruit and nuts. Also popular is Pandoro or golden bread. It is baked in a star shaped pan, and often dusted with powdered sugar, which gives it the appearance of a snow capped mountain. Panaforte is another bread, but this is flavored with hazelnuts, almonds and honey. Struffolli are honey balls made with honey and toasted pine nuts. Nuts have been popular ingredients as peasants thought that the nuts added to the fertility of the earth, which would lead to the increase of flocks and families. The use of honey was thought to sweeten the New Year.
Some Christmas decorations are similar to what we use, but others are different. Very important to the Italian
celebration of the season is the Presepe, or crib. It is like our crèche, or nativity scene. This is displayed in homes, and
churches, but also in the piazzas and sometimes performed as living nativity scenes. Presepe carries more importance in Italy than in America. Prayers are often offered in front of the Presepe each day of the Novena.
Some decorated Christmas trees are seen in Italy, but The Tree of Light has a different place in Italy. The Tree of Light is also call the Creppo. The Creppo is a pyramidal shaped wooden frame which may be several feet high. It has several shelves which hold small gifts, fruit and candy. The Creppo is decorated with pinecones, candles and small pennants. At the top is a star or small doll, reminiscent of the star or angel that tops our Christmas trees.
Another Italian tradition is the burning of the Yule Log. Christian legend tells how the Virgin Mary enters the homes of the humble at midnight while the people are away at Midnight Mass and warms her newborn child before the blazing log. Traditionally the Yule Log must stay alight until New Year's Day.
All around the world, an old man with a long white beard and red suit, trimmed in white is known by different names. Always he brings good wishes, and sometimes gifts for little children. In Uzbekistan he is called “Qor Bobo” or Grandfather Snow. In Afghanistan, it’s Baba Chaghaloo. We call him Santa Claus or St. Nick. But in Italy, he is Babbo
Natale, Father Christmas. Today, Italian children write to him, as they do here, but they also write to their parents, telling them how much they love them, and promising to be good in the coming year. This letter is usually placed under their father’s plate. He will read it at the end of the Christmas Eve dinner.
No matter what Christmas traditions your family may follow, here’s an easy one to add. When you celebrate Christmas, raise a glass of spumante, maybe with a sugar cube and say Buon Natale.