Christmas in Italy is magical. Piazzas fill with Christmas markets, Presepi (nativity scenes) pop up in churches, homes, and towns, carols are sung, cities are sparkling with lights, and of course, excellent food is all around!
Italy still very much keeps Christ in Christmas. It is thought that St. Francis was the first to bring the Christmas story to life on Christmas Eve in 1223 by creating a reverent reenactment of the manger scene in the town of Grecio. Later, artists of the Renaissance depicted the manger scene so beautifully, we still feel as if we can look into a window on that blessed evening by gazing at their works.
Still today, one of the most famous customs of Christmas in Italy is the Presepe, nativity scene. In Italian cities and towns alike, you will often happen upon a live nativity this time of year. Artisans in Naples work all year-round hand crafting their famous handmade figurines of the Christ Child, Mary and Joseph, shepherds, angels, animals, and mangers, sometimes even a Neapolitan Pizzaiolo for a little local fun!
These manger scenes are the recognizable symbol of Christmas in Italy, not Santa, not presents, not snowmen, snowflakes, or reindeer.
Traditionally, cities light their trees and turn on their Christmas lights on December 8th to celebrate the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary. Celebrations continue from this day to Epiphany on January 6th, when the Magi visited the Christ Child.
In many families the children receive their gifts from Gesu` Bambino, the Christ Child, rather than Santa Claus. In Italy, they call Santa, Babbo Natale (literally Father Christmas), and he is becoming more of a part of things with Italian children today. Still, it is Gesu` Bambino who is most highly revered.
In general, gift giving in Italy is a bit less chaotic than it has become for us in the States. A few gifts are given, more to the children, but it is Mass, dinner, and time together that rule the season.
Christmas Eve, La Vigilia in Italian, is special for Italian families, and typically celebrated with a fish or vegetarian dinner, with no meat. Salads, lighter pasta dishes with vegetables or seafood, risottos, and fish are commonly served before Mass, and desserts like panettone and torrone finish off the evening.
On Christmas Day, meat returns to the table, along with rich pasta recipes, and the not to be missed at Christmas time torrone! Preparing and eating often lasts the majority of the day, and it is celebrated with family. Like many of us, all over Italy younger people have had to leave their hometowns for work, but Christmas is a time to go home, to be with your family and enjoy time together.
Santo Stefano is celebrated on the 26th, when the meal is often made up of leftovers, and the atmosphere remains festive, and family oriented.
Festivities continue for New Years and then finish with Epiphany on January 6th, a celebration of its own! Come back next week to discover La Befana and other traditions of Epiphany.
In the meantime, as we approach Christmas day this year, may we all remember to embrace Italy’s focus on the true meaning of Christmas. Celebrating the birth of our Savior with gratitude, joy, and love.
Mia Emilia wishes you and your loved ones a very Merry Christmas! Buon Natale!
If you need some Italian inspiration for your Christmas Eve dinner this year, try this recipe from Mia Emilia’s pasta makers in Le Marche!
Tagliatelle with Lemon and Clams:
Ingredients for 4 people:
250 grams of Mia Emilia’s Tagliatelle Egg Pasta
500 grams of clams
70 grams of extra virgin olive oil (try Mia Emilia's Marini Giuseppe Toscano Lemon EVOO)
2 cloves of garlic
Flat leaf parsley to garnish - chopped
½ cup of white wine
Salt to taste
After cleaning the clams, let them open in a pan with the extra virgin olive oil and garlic. Add in the wine and let the alcohol evaporate, keeping the flavor. If you want, add a bit of salt to taste, and the juice of one lemon. Cook the tagliatelle in boiling, salted water for a few minutes until almost done, and then drain. Add the pasta into the pan with the clams. Add the chopped parsley for garnish and serve.