Let’s be clear, Christmas season in Italy doesn’t mean just the 24th and 25th of December. No, In fact the best of Italy’s Christmas Traditions span a whole month, from December 8th and the Feast of the Immaculate Conception to January 6th and Befana.
My favorite of Italy’s Christmas traditions holiday tradition, the panettone. But what is so special about this bread-like cake? Panettone is a risen cake filled with dried raisins and candied orange and lemon peel that originated in Milan. There are a few legends around how this cake came to be. One of them says there was a young cook’s assistant, Toni, who worked at the nobles court. It was Christmas and the chef had not prepared a dessert. So Toni prepared something using everything and anything he had on hand. Thus came the name, “il pan de Toni” (Toni’s bread).
This is a bit hard to believe as the Panettone must rise three separate times to be so fluffy, it isn’t something you can just whip together. For those of you who are true Panettone lovers here is a great article for you.
Italy is of course a very Catholic country, and while most holiday celebrations have moved on to the commercial perspective, the presepe, or nativity scenes are still one of Italy’s Christmas traditions not to be missed. Presepe are more than just your average Mary, Joseph, and Baby Jesus statuette. Home presepe can be enormous. Collections can grow to fill rooms, even including fountains with running water, trains, and so much more. These little figurines are unique to every family, and they usually are prepared over the month, waiting until Christmas to put out the figurine of the baby Jesus.
Then there are the live, or life size nativity scenes found in nearly every city. These are often a town event where people will line up to go see the display.
While many may still go to a midnight mass on Christmas Eve, others may choose to go skiing right at the stroke of midnight. While living in Rome, I would hear families pull up to apartments and exchange gifts at midnight at times, then living in the North, some prefer to stay out drinking till well after midnight. There is not one standard celebration here, but it is much different from our cozy-ing in for the night to wait for Santa.
Celebrated on the 13th of December, Santa Lucia is the Patron Saint of Syracuse, where she was martyred. According to legend, Lucia would bring food to Christians hiding in the catacombs and would wear a crown of candles to light the way. The tradition in Syracuse is to eat whole grains, preparing a special recipe: cuccia. This dish is made of boiled wheat berries often mixed with ricotta and honey.
To the North of Italy, this day is the traditional gift-giving day. Santa Lucia comes at night and leaves gifts for good children, coal to the bad ones. It is said she travels by donkey and with an escort, so children should leave a coffee for Lucia, a carrot for the donkey, and a glass of wine for the escort.
Not necessarily a tradition, but something you will begin to look forward to at the holiday season. This “Thirteenth” is essentially a holiday bonus. It was actually an invention from Fascist Italy under Benito Mussolini’s to reward factory workers, later on it was extended to workers in all sectors.
Italy’s favorite witch. Befana is a witch who truly flys on a broomstick, bringin sweets to children on the day of Epiphany, January 6th. But she doesn’t only bring sweets to good children, she is also said to sweep a little, and by doing so, sweep away the problems of the past year. According to legend she was a local woman who house the Magi on their journey to visit the newborn Jesus, they invited her but she said she had to much to do around the house. After they left she changed her mind and desired to go visit the Christ child, and bring him gifts, but she couldn’t find the way and therefore still is in search of the baby Jesus. There are a few variations of this story, but always overlapping with the Christ Child’s birth.
This tradition actually was not widespread in Italy, it was primarily a Roman tradition. It seems to have evolved from an ancient Sabine story. But towards the 20th century, this tradition, just like that of Santa Claus, took on a commercial aspect and became more popular across the peninsula.
And of course, food, more food, and more food
The best part of the season, everyone is ready to welcome you with excellent food and wine the whole month of December.