Celebrate Buon Natale Where it All Began
Christmas wouldn’t be “Christmas” without Italy. The holiday originated here. Yet in America, things are done a bit differently. We hang garlands by the fire, sit and conspire and sing songs of joy and peace. Children write letters to Santa, telling St. Nick they’ve been nice and not naughty.
In Italy, children don’t write letters to the big guy, instead, they send letters to their parents telling them how loved they are. The note is placed under their father’s plate and read after Christmas Even dinner has been finished.
North Pole? Elves? Not in Italia.
Santa doesn’t come down the chimney with a big sack of toys and ransack the cookie plate. In Italy, La Befana brings children toys on the Feast of the Epiphany – January 6. According to legend, the Three Wise Men stopped at her house to ask for directions on the way to Bethlehem. They then asked her to join them, and La Befana refused.
When night fell, she saw a great light in the sky, and began to think she should have gone with the Three Wise Men. La Befana gathered toys that once belonged to her deceased child and ran off to find the kings. She couldn’t find them. Now each year she looks for the Christ Child. Because she can’t find him, La Befana leaves presents for the children of Italy and pieces of coal for the bad naughty ones.
Menu di Natale
Do you eat Italian food on Christmas Eve? Not likely. In Italy, there’s not a Christmas goose or gingerbread house in sight.
For hundreds of years, La Vigilia di Natale, or Feast of the Seven Fishes, has been an Italian Christmas Eve tradition. This is exactly what the name implies: a meal of at least seven different pesce. The significance of this tradition is open to debate. Does it symbolize the seven sacraments? Gifts from the Holy Spirit? The seven days of creation? Whichever it is, this meal is a wonderful religious and cultural tradition.
The most popular seafood are roasted or fried eel, considered a delicacy in Italy, and baccalà (salted dried cod fish) as well as swordfish and even sardines. Side dishes include vermicelli, baked pasta loaded with ooey gooey cheese and Christmas Broccoli (disguised as broccoli rabe.)
Traditional sweets originate from an unlikely source: convents. Nuns would make all sorts of desserts to commemorate major religious holidays, including Christmas. They would present these treats to the noble families from which their Mother Superiors came. These include struffoli, a Neapolitan honey pastry, cenci, fried pastry sprinkled with powdered sugar, marzipan and candied nuts.
Then there are the sweet breads. In fact, you could take a Eurail Italy Pass, and travel all over the country sampling each region’s take on sugary pane. In Siena there’s panforte, Genoa has pandolce, and Milan, the panettone. This one in particular is now plentiful in the States, and sold in those decorative boxes. Holiday hint: if bringing a gift to someone’s home, this is preferable to fruitcake. Legend has it that a baker named Antonio fell in love with a princess and baked her this buttery egg bread to win her heart.
Felice Anno Nuovo ! Italian New Year’s Celebration
Ring in 2012 with a baci and glass of sparkling Prosecco, Italy’s sparkling wine. Produced in the Veneto region, this sweet bubby is perfect for toasting to La Dolce Vita.