Saturday, December 17, 2011

Christmas Around the World--Italy

Eclipsing the Christmas festival in Italy is the feast of the Immaculate Conception, honoring the Virgin Mary.  Calabrian shepherds, dressed in goatskin trousers and colorful jackets, come down from the mountains to play on their pipes and pastoral flutes, stopping before each shrine in the streets and before the doors of all carpenter shops to salute the Virgin and Child.

Italy's Christmas scene is set with a profusion of pretty flowers and graceful olive trees.  Their Santa Clause is the beneficent old witch, "Befana," who, clothed in rags, rides from house to house on a broomstick, leaving presents beside the hearth for the children.

Befana dispensing gifts suspended from a fennel stalk - by Bartolomeo Pinelli, 1825

The Precipio, truly symbolic of the Italian Christmas, is found in every home, with tiny statuettes of the Holy Family, angels, shepherds and Wise Men grouped about a miniature manger.

Precipio made of shells (Image Credit)

(This section--credit, Christmas Around the World, an Ideals publication, 1961)

The Italian Christmas Eve
The traditional meal for Christmas Eve does not include meat.  Called La Vigilia, it's all fish and vegetables.  This is true with most of the meals served on the night before a religious festival in Italy. It's supposed to be a giorno di magro...eating lean to help purify your body for the holiday.

A traditional Christmas Eve dish is capitone (eel), although it’s not as common as it used to be.  Presently, fish that is commonly prepared is baccala, octopus, and shellfish.  The favorite in Rome is the pezzetti, which are fried cubes of ricotta or pieces of artichokes, zucchini, or broccoli.  Also in Naples, a starter is a sauteed mix of broccoli and seafood.

Of course, next come the pasta dishes.  There are different variations according to region.  In the north, in Lombardy or Piedmont, for example, lasagna is covered with anchovies, parmesan, and seasonings.  In Naples, there's vermicelli with clams or mussels.  

Italian Christmas Day Lunch
Lunch is the meal of the day.  Pasta in brodo—pasta in broth—is a usually the starter to the meal throughout Italy, but especially in northern Italy.  In Bologna, there's meat-filled tortellini in capon (eel) broth; in Ferrara, it's pumpkin stuffed pasta.

Filled Pasta

Eel used to be the common main course, but now, Turkey has become a mainstay—stuffed, not unlike what we eat for our Thanksgiving (or Christmas dinner).

At the Christmas Day meal in Calabria, the table stays set after the meal is finished.  This occurs because they're waiting for the Madonna and baby Jesus to come and enjoy the food!

Of course, the dessert can't be forgotten.  Generally, Italians aren't big dessert eaters, but sweets at Christmas are very important.  Of course, sweet breads, like panettone and pandoro, are very popular throughout Italy.  Other desserts include cavallucci, cookies with the image of a horse (from, of course, Siena); dita degli apostoli (“fingers of the apostles”), chocolate- or coffee-flavored ricotta-filled omelettes, a Puglian tradition; and mostaccioli, spiced nut pastries gobbled up by Romans.


The Christmas season doesn't end there for Italians, as the season continues until January 6, the day of Epiphany.

Always in spirit....


  1. We are Italian and follow many of these traditions. We have fish on Christmas Eve, along with lasagna. On holidays such as Christmas we start with pasta and then have a more traditional American meal. Thanks so much for sharing this :)

  2. You're welcome, Kimba! I hope my research was accurate. =O) Glad I could honor your traditions!


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