Christmas is for me a celebration of family, friends and importantly great food.
I am lucky enough to have spent some time travelling, and although I prefer to be at home for the festive season, experiencing Christmas in another country has been an interesting way to learn some recipes and traditions that we can borrow to make our occasions that little bit more special.
For a start, forget father Christmas! Many of the less prominent (in the UK) nativity characters are at the forefront of Italian Christmas. Babbo natale (santa) may bring some smaller gifts on the 24th, but the kids are really preparing for the arrival of some less familiar characters, The three kings and wise men are particularly celebrated. La Novena de Aguinaldos is a nine day period before Christmas, which celebrates the shepherd’s journey to the manger. Similarly to carol singers in the UK, children may go from house to house, or to a religious statue and sing in costume.
The feast of the epiphany on the 6th of January is the most important date in terms of gift giving celebrations. In Italy children will put up stockings, in anticipation that they will be filled by Befana on the eve of the 5th. Italian folklore suggests that Befana was an elderly, almost witch like character, who rides a broom, and refused to join the wise men on their pilgrimage. Be good kids, or you may find that she brings you a lump of coal. In parts of northern Italy, it is the Three Kings who might in fact bring you your presents.
These differences in celebrations, and adherence to some forgotten religious practices result in some fantastic celebrations of food. There is a completely different take on the Christmas eve vigil (la Vigilla) banquets for instance. The 24th is seen theoretically as a fasting period rather than the beginning of the indulgences. Many practice what is known as a “giorno di magro”, and still observe abstinence before many religious occasions- eating little or no meat, and preparing the body.
Eel was traditionally served at this meal, although it is now more prevalent to find octopus, swordfish and shellfish on a modern Italian dinner table.
The intention of having a lean period does not always hit its mark! It is also known as the feast of 7 fishes! A combination of traditionalism and modern excess mean that this attempt at cleansing often has the opposite result. Some may end up eating 7 courses for the number of sacraments, or even 13 for the number of disciples.
On Christmas day itself, for ‘Cenone’ or simply “Big dinner” you may start with traditional antipasti. Cured meats and cheeses and special breads like the sfincione from Scicily.
The meat is likely to be served over a number of dishes, often beginning with a soup or broth with tortellini. At this point the regional preferences really command what you are likely to encounter. Baked ‘al forno’ pastas are popular in the southern regions, lasagne in parts of the north. Roasted game,veal or beef, alongside rich game sausages and local vegetables.
For desert, the heralded panatonne is a firm favourite throughout Italy. It initially began as a way to use up leftover Christmas ingredients, but has grown even beyond Italy, to become a traditional Christmas gift throughout the world. A perhaps lesser known dessert is the Torrone. It actually was the inspiration for the famous swiss toblerone bar. It is comprised of nougat, honey, and sometimes nuts & chocolate, and stacked into towers.
Finish with Expresso, more wine, and your day is complete.
Add a few of these little touches to make your day special… or embrace Italian Christmas completely and get ready to celebrate from the 9th of December until the 6th of January!
Punto would love to invite you to come and experience some of these authentic Italian traditions,
Our newly renovated Green lanes premises has a innovative cutting edge pizza oven, and our team has over 35 years’ experience serving great Italian food. We have a few spaces left for the Christmas period, and would love to welcome you.