I’ve decided to blog about the Holiday, in my favourite place in this world.... Italy. Since it’s generally considered the heart of Christianity, what better time to look at how the most Holy of holidays is celebrated there?
In Italy, the holidays are steeped with the spirit of celebration and reverence for which Italians are famous. 98% of Italians are Catholic, and as the holidays approach, it may seem like the entire country is in eager preparation. The thing that makes it really unique is although rituals are somewhat similar throughout the country, they vary from region to region as well as house to house. Food plays a central role in each.
The Christmas season begins with the national holiday on December 8, marking the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Churches all over the country unveil their presepi, (elaborate nativity scenes). Hundreds of presepi can be seen in Rome’s Piazza del Popolo and a life-size nativity scene resides for the season in St. Peter’s Square. The tradition of displaying mangers originated in the 13th century when St. Francis of Assisi erected the first manger in Greccio. Other noteworthy presepi are on show in the Museum of St. Martino and Church of St. Chiara, both in Naples, and the King’s Palace in Caserta (Campania).
On the streets of Rome, one of the most festive places to experience Italian Christmas traditions, zampognari, (shepherds from the Abruzzo region), dress in native costumes and play Christmas tunes on their bagpipes. The Piazza Navona transforms into a giant Christmas fair with booths selling candy, toys, gifts and roasted nuts. Lights and music flow through the square.
Twinkling lights, red ribbons, Christmas trees (Italians started putting them up after World War II) and the likeness of Babbo Natale (Father Christmas) begin to appear in storefronts and homes throughout Italy.
And, a tradition many would like to have, almost all employers give their employees la tredicesima, a Christmas bonus the equivalent of a 13th month of pay.
Italians eat very little on the day of Christmas Eve. They are preparing their stomachs for the massive meal to be consumed that night. The meal centers on fish, in the Catholic tradition to abstain from meat the night before a major holiday. La Vigilia di Natale (the vigil) is also called The Feast of the Seven Fishes. The origin of the “seven” is somewhat of a mystery. Some say it comes from the number of sacraments; others say it relates to the phase of the moon (seven days). Some families even serve 13 fish dishes, one for Jesus and one for each of the 12 apostles.
Popular offerings include linguini with clam sauce, spaghetti with mussels, grilled lobster, salt cod and shrimp. Romans traditionally eat capitone, a long, fat female eel that is grilled and seasoned. Families attend midnight mass together and return home for panettone (the dome-shaped fruit cake that originated in Milan) and Prosecco (sparkling wine).
The Language and Customs of The Italian Holiday Season
You can find bigger Christmas trees (alberi di Natale) and more extravagant decorations (decorazioni) in other parts of the world, but nothing looks, tastes, feels or sounds like la stagione natalizia (Christmas season) in Italy. With roots in the “Saturnalia,” the winter solstice rites of ancient Rome, and Christian commemorations of the birth of Gesù Bambino (Baby Jesus), the Italian holidays blend religious and pagan festivities that light up the darkest of nights.
In Rome and much of southern Italy, the traditional sound of Christmas is the music of bagpipes and flutes played by shepherds from the region of Abruzzo. Zampognari (bagpipe players), wearing shaggy sheepskin vests, felt hats and crisscrossed leather leggings, used to come to Rome weeks before Christmas to play in churches. These days the shepherds arrive later and play their ancient instruments in front of elegant stores along the Via Condotti and other shopping streets near the Spanish Steps.
Festivities such as fairs and torchlight processions begin weeks before and continue weeks after December 25.
The Tastes of Christmas
When Italians are asked what they do most during the Christmas holidays, they invariably say, “Mangiamo” (we eat) – very often and very well, with a huge feast on Christmas Eve, il pranzo di Natale at mid-day on Christmas, and il cenone di capodanno, another elaborate dinner on New Year’s Eve. In some regions the Christmas feasts must have seven courses (for the seven sacraments); others serve nine (the trinity times three) or thirteen (for Jesus and his twelve disciples).
The centerpiece of the Christmas Eve dinner is fish, particularly eel, a favorite of the ancient Romans that appears in the earliest known cookbook, written by a gourmand known as Apicius. This symbol of life and immortality was traditionally sold alive and wiggling, then beheaded, chopped and dropped into boiling water, spit-roasted, grilled, stewed with white wine and peas, or pickled in vinegar, oil, bay leaves, rosemary and cloves.
The Christmas day feast usually starts with a rich pasta, such as cappelletti in brodo, little hats stuffed with chopped meats, cheese, eggs or pumpkin. By tradition everyone is supposed to eat at least a dozen. Depending on the region of Italy, the main course may be capon, pork or turkey. However, everyone saves room for the special dolci (sweets) and breads of Christmas.
Canadian born and bred, and a lifelong dreamer, I began writing at an early age and can’t recall a time when I wasn’t creating in some artistic form. My life has had several on-going love affairs that shape much of what I write, the American West, Victorian England, cowboys, a passion for pirates, Greek Gods, and Ancient Egypt. The other endless love affair in my life is Italia and all its magic, beauty, and dazzling culture. That passion spills into all aspects of my life. A visit to my website will show the diversity of what is currently available, and the mixing of genres and styles that will be employed in many up-coming projects as well.
Website - http://www.denysebridger.com
Blog - http://fantasy-pages.blogspot.com
Newsgroup - http://ca.groups.yahoo.com/group/denysebridgernews/
Newsletter - http://groups.yahoo.com/group/romanceandfantasy/
Amazon Author Page - http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B003LUHE96
Denyse will be giving away a $10 Gift Certificate from XoXo Publishing to one lucky person who comments on her post.