Buone Feste! Christmas Italy style

There has not been an Italian Pope for 35 years, but Rome is special at Christmas. There and elsewhere it's food, food, food and tonnes of amazing traditions. Naughty kids in the south always fear a little witch that might stop them getting presents!

Rome at Christmas
Tim Hedges
On 25 December 2013 16:56

Buone Feste! Always said in the plural because for Italians this is as much a festive season as a single important day. For some the festive mood begins on Immacolata, the Feast of the Immaculate conception, 8th December, and for many it ends on Epiphany, 6th January.

Christmas in Italy is, one is glad to say, a little less commercial than in the Anglo-Saxon world. It is a time for families, something the Italians are good at. The saying goes Natale con I suoi, Pasqua con chi vuoi – Christmas with your loved ones, Easter with whomever you want.

And needless to say it is characterised by food. On Christmas Eve the whole family gets together, often three, even four generations, for a traditional meal. La Vigilia, 24th December, has traditionally been a fast day, when meat is not eaten.

There will be antipasti of fish or perhaps octopus salad followed by a primo perhaps of agnolotti, tiny pasta wraps filled with ricotta and spinach or pumpkin. A main course of fish might include a whole roast fish or eel which can be bought live.

Fishmongers are taking orders in the days before Christmas Eve so you know you can have exactly what you want. The average family spends just under €100 (£83) on this meal although 30 percent will spend €100-200.

But Italians are feeling the pinch and rather than reaching for their credit cards are making cutbacks: over the six recession filled years since 2008, overall Christmas spending has dropped by more than 40 percent.

After dinner, the churches are packed for midnight mass, even young children, who have had a nap in the afternoon, attending the celebration of Christ’s birth: the start of the Christian year.

On Christmas lunch you are allowed to eat meat, and the Italians do. This time of year there are sausages and salamis, perhaps served with thin slices of cheese and olives. The pasta might be baked in the oven and come out bubbling with meat sauce and cheese, there might be slow cooked beef or roast veal. And of course there are huge quantities of panettone Christmas cake.

Presents are given at Christmas although, particularly in the South, it is also traditional on Epiphany. There is a special Befana doll, like a witch, sometimes on a broomstick. Befana knows if you have been bad, and naughty children might receive a lump of coal (although it’s made of liquorice)!

In Rome, Christmas, as it should be, is a time of celebration. Bells ring, priests and sometimes their congregations parade in the streets singing.

And in St. Peter’s Square the Pope gives his traditional address to the faithful. This is a peculiarly Italian thing: even though there has not been an Italian Pope for 35 years and St. Peter’s is not, technically, in Italy, the Pope is honoured here like nowhere else.

A particularly attractive feature of the Italian Christmas is the Preseppe, or crib. Here the tradition is not limited to churches and primary schools. Local councils build presepi and thousands go to visit them. In many places there are competitions for the best and in some cities, such as Bologna or Perugia, there might be 50 on display.

Often they will show the architecture of the town itself, the Christ Child being born in your local area.

The people of Campania believe their presepi to be unrivalled, although Bologna disputes this.

There are Nativity plays, there are children walking the streets dressed as shepherds and of course there is more eating. Those of us who are only going to grow horizontally in the future have to take it calmly: there is still lunch on Santo Stefano (Boxing Day), then New Year’s Eve and Epiphany to come. Auguri!

Tim Hedges, The Commentator's Italy Correspondent, had a career in corporate finance before moving to Rome where he works as a freelance writer, novelist, and farmer. You can see more of his articles about Italy by typing his name into the Search box at the top right-hand side of the site. You can also see other Christmas articles in the Related Articles slider below this piece

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