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Christmas in Italy has changed over the years, certainly since I was a child. It was the festivity itself and the food we looked forward to and not presents. Now Babbo Natale (father Christmas) makes an appearance, whereas before, children would wait for Gesu' Bambino (Baby Jesus) and presents would be given on 6th January on the feast of the Epiphany by an old woman known as La Befana. Nowadays kids get both!
Preparations for Christmas begin on 8th December, the Feast of La Immaculata, a national holiday in Italy and the time when Christmas trees are decorated and the presepio (crib) set up. When I was a child, we never had a tree - along with Babbo Natale, the Christmas tree is now present in most Italian homes. The presepio, however, is a tradition which all Italians, whether religious or not, tend to follow and really make a big effort with. Most Italian cribs are large structures which are literally built each year and whole village scenes are depicted using special clay figures. There is an area in Naples where shops sell these figures as well as everything else you may need to make your own presepio. I have always maintained this tradition and over recent years have created my own version. My presepio is made from a large dried fungus where I carefully stick miniature figures creating my own village-like scene carefully removing and adding bits each year. On a recent trip to Naples, I stocked up on a variety of new figures which I am looking forward to adding.
Food is an important element to an Italian Christmas and preparations can begin months in advance. At the end of summer I like to preserve cherries and berries in alcohol and in autumn, I always put aside some wild mushrooms in olive oil to enjoy at Christmas. If I have lots, then they make ideal Christmas gifts as well. There is no set Christmas meal like there tends to be in England - food and meals differ according to regional tastes and traditions.
In central and southern Italy, a big meal is prepared on Christmas Eve, consisting of fish and vegetables - no meat is eaten - classics like baccala (salt cod) are enjoyed along with perhaps clams, mussels, seabass, anchovies, seasonal vegetables & salads, before exchanging gifts or heading off to midnight mass. Lunch on Christmas Day is also a big affair with four or five courses being the norm starting with an array of mouth-watering antipasto dishes. In northern Italy meat-filled ravioli or tortellini are eaten, whereas in southern regions, rich baked pasta dishes are more common like La Gran Lasagna, so typical of my region, made with meatballs, salami, eggs, ricotta & mozzarella. A main course of roasted capon is popular but some people may opt for beef, chicken or game and in Emilia-Romagna, duck and goose are favoured.
The traditional cakes, panettone and pandoro, although originating in the north, are hugely popular throughout Italy and even abroad. For Italians, Christmas just wouldn't be Christmas without one or the other. In my house, we always have both! Other sweet treats include the famous torrone (nougat) which is made in different forms depending on where you are. I like to have mine delivered from a pastry shop in Minori, small, artisan-produced torroncini covered in chocolate and pistachio as well as other goodies like mustaccioli biscuits and local limoncello-filled chocolates.
Almond- based ricciarelli biscuits and panforte from Siena are also popular festive treats as well as many other regional specialities. Although Christmas is a time for family in Italy, like anywhere else, I find there are more people out and about on Christmas Day than there are in England. If you haven't been to midnight mass then Christmas mass in the morning is a must after which people flock to cafes and pasticcierie (pastry shops) for a coffee or aperitivo and purchase any last-minute sweet treats before heading home for lunch. Some restaurants remain open for those who prefer to eat out and not have to cook at home. I remember being in Le Marche one Christmas when the girls were young and this is exactly what we did - we found a small family-run trattoria offering course upon course of local seasonal specialities. It was such a treat to be cooked for on this special day as I'm always the one who cooks the Christmas meal at home. Even in the late afternoon, you see people wandering about the piazzas and in certain places cinemas are open.
This year we will spend Christmas in our house in the Norfolk countryside where the girls love to decorate a huge real Christmas tree and I will be busy adding the final touches to my presepio. Christmas Eve is usually spent busily in the kitchen - the girls love to make star-shaped biscuits and I will prep for the big day and make struffoli - traditional bite-sized Neapolitan pastries covered in honey and decorated with citrus zest. We don't have the traditional big meal on Christmas Eve preferring to save our appetites for Christmas Day lunch with family and friends. Lunch will probably consist of lots of yummy antipasto bits of Italian cured meats and home-preserved vegetables followed by pasta with truffle and because we're in the middle of the English countryside, it has to be roast turkey.
Wishing you all BUON NATALE!