Christmas is by far the most important holiday of the year in Italy—the festivities last from December 24th. through January 6th. Family gatherings are the most important part of the holiday. This is the time of year when families reunite from whatever corners of the world they may have scattered and it is around the table or, a tavola, that Italian families come together. These holidays allow parents and children, siblings and in-laws, friends and sweethearts—and sometimes a grandfather (nonno) or grandmother (nonna), or an old beloved aunt (zia)—the opportunity to see one another after long separations, spending significant time together over splendid food and drink.
Italian children write letters to Santa Claus or Father Christmas asking for presents and in Italy the main day for gift giving is the Epiphany. These presents are brought by La Befana, a kindly old witch, who fill children’s stockings in the night with sweets, “i dolciumi” if they have been good or with coal, “il carbone” if they have been bad. Santa Lucia brings the gifts in Venice and Mantova, while in other regions, it is the Baby Jesus or Gesu’ Bambino who brings the presents. The children also write to their parents to let know how much they love them. This letter is placed under their father’s plate and he reads it at the end of dinner.
Among the traditions, customs and other rituals typical of the Christmas season are:
- The main focus of decorations is the presepe, Nativity scene or creche. The churches have a presepe outdoors and traditional bonfires are assembled in the main square of town.
- Ceppo known, as The Tree of Light, is a wooden frame with a pyramid shape; it is several feet high and supports many shelves or tiers. The ceppo has on the bottom a manger scene and on the shelves above are placed small gifts of fruit, candy and presents. It is also decorated with gilt pine cones, colored paper, little candles and pennants. At the top is placed a star or a small doll.
- Urn of Fate: they are wrapped presents for each family member. If you get a present with your name on it, you keep it; otherwise, you try again.
- Zampognari and Pifferai: Bagpipers and flute players dressed with traditional costumes entertain the people at religious shrines.
- In the Vatican City, the people go to the square at noon on Christmas day to receive the Pope’s blessing; he appears at his balcony.
- Another tradition is the burning of the Yule log, which must stay lit until New Year’s Day.
- The cribs are usually handed down from generation to generation.
Christmas Dinner In Italy
Again it will almost certainly start with a selection of antipasti – perhaps including salami and Parma ham, and a glass or two of sparkling Prosecco. Then there will be a hearty filled pasta dish, such as agnolotti, ravioli or tortellini. Most families will follow this with a roast – often poultry, served with vegetables; others might have a local meaty speciality, such as a stuffed pig’s trotter. Although Italians don’t usually indulge much in desserts, at Christmas, most people will make an exception and follow the meat course with some panettone – a light but buttery sponge cake or other sweets. In some regions people might also have some pandolce, a heavy fruit cake with pine nuts.
The most significant meal of the Christmas Day is the lunch or il pranzo. In Italy the following dishes are often served:
- Lo zampone – the skin of the lower pig leg, including the toe little bones, filled with minced meat and sausages
- Il cotechino – pig’s foot stuffed with spiced minced meat
- Turkey stuffed with chestnuts
- Lamb is also enjoyed with mashed potatoes and lentils
- Tortellini in chicken stock
- Crostini with liver pâté
Desserts such as:
- Torrone – Nougat
- Il panettone – the Milanese fruit cake filled with candied fruit
- Gold bread – the traditional cake
- Il pandoro – similar to il panettone, only without fruits or raisins
- Il panforte – Gingerbread with hazelnuts, honey and almonds
The traditional drinks are:
- Vin brule – mulled wine
- Bombardino – Italian version of eggnog
- Punch of rum, mandarin and orange flavors
Christmas Dinner Memories
When I was a child, Christmas was a very special time in our house. We all looked forward to this season: my parents, my grandparents, my maternal aunts and my siblings. It was a busy time shopping, wrapping presents, baking and decorating the house and the tree.
When Christmas arrived, we were up by 5 A.M. to open presents. After we had time with our new gifts, my father would take us to visit his relatives in Little Italy, while my mother started dinner preparations. My father had a large family so this took awhile. By the time we had wished my grandmother and all my father’s brothers and sisters, a Merry Christmas, it was time to head home. My mother never needed to make dessert for Christmas dinner, because after the rounds of visiting the relatives, we went home with a number of special homemade Christmas treats.
In fact, before the day was done we had more sweets than we could eat in a week. My mother’s father would come for dinner and he would always bring Italian pastries, ice cream and Hershey bars. What a day!
Dinner was held early in the afternoon and began with a typical antipasto of Italian meats, cheeses, olives and vegetables.
The next course was always Lasagna with little meatballs in the sauce. This was followed by a pork roast with roasted potatoes and a green salad. Lots to eat – and don’t forget those desserts!
Christmas Dinner At My House
Because several members of my family are vegetarians, I often serve vegetarian dishes alongside the non-vegetarian dishes.
- 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 3 cloves of garlic, peeled and sliced
- 2 pounds sweet onions, thinly sliced
- 1 tablespoon sea salt
- 1-26-ounce container Pomi tomatoes
- 4 cups of beef broth
- 4 cups water
- 6 slices of thick crusty bread
- 6 slices of provolone cheese
In a large heavy-bottomed pot, add the olive oil and set on medium heat. When the oil is hot, add the garlic and let sizzle for about 1 minute. Be careful not to burn. Add the onion slices and sprinkle with the salt. Stir into the olive oil with a wooden spoon. Reduce heat to low and slowly cook them for about 15 minutes – stirring frequently. The onions will reduce in size and begin to develop a light browned color.
Add the tomatoes to the pot and 4 cups of water. Stir in the onions. Bring the pot to a boil, then cover with a lid and reduce heat to low and cook for 45 minutes. Uncover and cook for another 15 minutes, letting the soup thicken a bit.
When ready to serve, toast or grill the bread and immediately top with the provolone cheese to melt a bit. Alternatively, you could toast the bread quickly under the broiler, then add the cheese and brown and melt the a bit. Add bread with cheese to the bottom of a serving bowl. Ladle the soup mixture over the bread
- 6 garlic cloves
- 3 tablespoons Dijon mustard
- 2 tablespoons coarse black pepper
- 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 4 1/2 pounds beef tenderloin, trimmed and tied
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
Combine garlic, mustard and pepper in the bowl of a food processor or blender. With the food processor running, slowly drizzle in oil and process until the ingrdients are very finely chopped. Rub mixture over beef and refrigerate at least 4 hours and up to 24 hours.
Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Coat a rimmed baking sheet with cooking spray.
Transfer beef to baking sheet. Sprinkle with salt. Bake about 40 minutes, or until a thermometer inserted into the center registers 135 F. for medium-rare. Remove from oven and let stand 10 minutes before slicing.
Gnocchi with Creamy Pesto
(dilute pesto sauce with a little half and half)
See recipe: http://jovinacooksitalian.com/2012/10/16/how-to-make-homemade-gnocchi/
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1 yellow onion, finely diced
- 3 large cloves garlic, finely minced
- 16 ounces organic baby spinach, roughly chopped
- 4 large eggs
- 1 cup milk
- 2 tablespoons fine dry bread crumbs
- 1/4 cup minced fresh flat leaf parsley
- 1/4 cup minced fresh dill
- Grated zest of 1 large lemon
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- Pinch of cayenne pepper, or to taste
- 2 cups Sargento Italian six cheese blend
Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees F. Spray an 8 x 11-inch baking dish with cooking spray and set aside.
Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring frequently, until the onion is soft, 6 to 8 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the spinach (it may be necessary to do this in batches) and raise the heat to medium-high. Cook, stirring frequently, until the spinach wilts. Remove the pan from the heat.
Whisk the eggs and milk together in a large bowl. Stir in the bread crumbs, parsley, dill, lemon zest, salt, pepper, and cayenne. Add the spinach mixture and the Italian cheese, and stir to combine. Transfer the mixture to the prepared pan and bake until the top has browned and set, about 30 minutes. Let cool for at least 10 minutes before cutting into squares.
Roasted Squash and Cauliflower
Italian Cookies see post: http://jovinacooksitalian.com/2012/12/14/my-childrens-favorite-christmas-cookies-part-2/
- Inventory: the perfect wine with Christmas dinner (jaderings8.wordpress.com)
- How to celebrate Christmas in a multicultural expat family? (expatsincebirth.com)
- My passion for Italian confections – part I. (urbaneating.wordpress.com)
- Buon Natale: Holiday Traditions and Celebrations in Rome (vinoconvistablog.me)
- What Is Panettone ? (jovinacooksitalian.com)
- Christmas in Italy (hungrylittlegirl.com)
- Christmas: La Befana… (munchkinhappy.wordpress.com)
- Christmas in Italy’s Small Towns (becomingitalianwordbyword.typepad.com)
Kathleen Ann Siler
December 21, 2012 at 12:40 pm
I always look forward to reading your blog posts, Jovina! I’m grateful to your friend Anne for suggesting that I might enjoy them — as much for the history as the recipes you share. This one filled with Christmas images, traditional recipes and pure “comfort” food Is especially wonderful. Thanks for putting so much care and dedication into your articles. Merry Christmas blessings to you and your loved ones.
December 21, 2012 at 1:54 pm
Thank you so much, Kathy, for letting me know how much you enjoy reading this blog. I really appreciate it. A very Merry Christmas to you and your family.
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