It being the Friday before Christmas and we all feeling a bit ragged after all that gift shopping, festive preparations, holiday arrangements and Advent calendar chocolate eating, here is a little something from me to you to put you right back into the Christmas mood.
As, everybody loves lists for their ease of reading and quick fact sharing, here is the first half of a list, especially compiled for you, with 25 out of 50 Christmas facts about Italy.
Italy is a fascinating country, more so during the holidays, when Christmas markets, music concerts, religious celebrations and gourmet eating are the order of the day. So, I am sharing with you in two installments everything I have learned about spending a wonderful (and, sometimes, even white) Christmas in the Northern Italian region of Veneto.
By the end of it, if you haven’t made plans to spend the next festive season here, at least you would have learned your panettone from your pandoro, absorbed a lot of Italian trivia to dazzle everyone with at any Christmas parties you will be attending from now on and you would have also spent five joyous minutes slowly filling up with Christmas cheer like a cup of thick hot Italian chocolate.
And a very Buon Natale to you!
1. Christmas-related celebrations in Italy start in early December and conclude on Epiphany – 6th January.
2. Nativity scenes, called ‘presepe‘ in Italian, are carefully arranged in churches, city squares and private homes. They represent the Holy Family in the stable. They can be small with tiny figurines or human-size and in some churches the whole town of Bethlehem is recreated in minute detail around the stable.
3. Living Nativity scenes are also organised with groups of local volunteers staging elaborate representations in caves, on town squares or as a procession along the city’s main streets. In some cases, such living Nativity scenes can have hundreds of participants.
4. Panettone is well-known beyond the borders of Italy as the sweet bread generously studded with candied fruit pieces and raisins which is enjoyed during the Christmas season. It originally comes from Milan and it takes 20 hours for the dough to rise three times, which helps produce the domed shape of the panettone and gives it its light porous texture.
5. Pandoro (in English ‘golden bread’) is Verona’s answer to Milan’s panettone. It is a very tasty sweet bread, also eaten for Christmas. Pandoro is, yes, golden in colour thanks to the eggs used in its preparation. It is tall, star shaped and it is served sprinkled with icing sugar so as to look like the snow-sprinkled caps of the nearby Dolomites. Newer varieties of pandoro are now being sold with chocolate and custard fillings, which, even though depart from tradition, are simply yummy (based on our own personal taste test held last night after dinner!).
6. Italians traditionally adorn their Christmas trees on 8th December – the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, which is celebrated as a national holiday. The trees and all other Christmas decorations stay up until Epiphany.
7. Throughout Italy there are four gift-giving traditions: 6th December – when St. Nicholas visits the upper Northern regions of the country; 13th December – when Santa Lucia leaves presents for good kids mainly around Northern Italy; Christmas Eve/Christmas Day – when either Babbo Natale (Father Christmas) or Baby Jesus bring presents to kids all over Italy; and 6th January – when the witch Befana fills the stockings of good children all over Italy with sweets and leaves a lump of coal for those who have misbehaved through the previous year.
8. The lump of coal nowadays is actually a piece of black rock candy.
9. Once Befana delivers her presents, large bonfires are set alight all over the country on which a human-size puppet representing the good witch is burned. It is an obvious throwback to pagan rituals – burning the old in order to welcome the new year in, purification through fire and a never-ending cycle of renewal. We saw Befana on the bonfire last year and it was a rather powerful experience.
10. Traditional Christmas desserts in Italy are panforte – a type of dry cake made of honey, spices, candied fruit and almonds, which is typical for the Tuscan city of Siena; torrone – Italian nougat made with almonds, hazelnuts or even peanuts, which can be either very hard or soft; and tronchetto di Natale – a chocolate yule log.
11. Hampers with fine foods and wines are a popular Christmas gift. Supermarkets and small delis sell a huge variety of these all through December costing from around 6 euros for a set of panettone and a bottle of sparkling wine to hundreds of euros for a huge basket stuffed with the best of Italian food products.
12. The Urn of Fate is a great Italian way to add an even bigger element of surprise to gift giving. A selection of wrapped small presents is put in a bowl and when the family gathers together on Christmas Day, every member takes his turn to pick a present. We are planning to do it this year!
13. You know how children in English-speaking countries leave a carrot, a mince pie and a glass of whiskey out for Santa and his reindeer on Christmas Eve? Italian children leave a plate with food and some hay, milk or carrots for Santa Lucia and her donkey. The saint delivers presents on the 13th December (see point 7 above).
14. Christmas markets are ubiquitous in Italy from the end of November to Epiphany. They are especially atmospheric in the German-speaking Northern regions of South Tyrol and Trentino. I love the German Christmas market in Verona. Have a look at some pictures of its colourful stalls underneath a statue of Dante here.
15. A huge shooting star made of white iron each year is attached to Arena di Verona – a Roman amphitheatre, which is older than the Colosseum in Rome (see the photo at the beginning of this article). It symbolises the star which led the Three Wise Men to the birthplace of Jesus. It is erected at Piazza Bra every year since 1984 and it has become an intrinsic part of the Christmas experience in Verona. The structure is 70 metres high and it weighs a staggering 78 tons.
16. Bagpipe players called zampognari come out to play on the streets of Italian cities and towns in the eight days before Christmas. Although this tradition is stronger mainly in Southern Italy, we saw our own zampognaro on the streets of Vicenza. Dressed with a heavy cloak and with furs wrapped around his calves, he told us he was from nearby Asiago and when he found out that I am Bulgarian, to my utter amazement, he sang the most haunting Balkan folk song which brought tears to my eyes. His wife, apparently, is Serbian, which would explain his knowledge.
17. Sending Christmas cards is not as popular in Italy as it is in England, for example. Families and relatives see each other often here, so, perhaps this is why they don’t feel the need to spend time writing identikit wishes on colourful pieces of carton. The other reason could be that Christmas cards are rather expensive with a simple card from the local supermarket costing anything from 2.90 euro upwards. Better spend the money on panettone and pandoro!
18. Christmas Eve dinner is traditionally meat-free. In our current hometown of Vicenza, the meal served comprises air dried stockfish, which has been soaked in water for several days, simmered with milk and is then served over creamy polenta. The stockfish is sold in every supermarket. Just the other day I saw a lady in Venice, coming from the backdoor of a restaurant on one of the small and curving streets there. She was holding a bucket with several large stockfish submerged in water. She proceeded to put the bucket in a small storage room, where, I would imagine, it would spend a few days, until the fish is fully re-hydrated.
19. Everyone goes to Midnight Mass.
20. Presents are opened either on the morning of Christmas Day or after the Christmas lunch.
21. The Christmas lunch itself is a lengthy and sumptuous affair with the emphasis on getting the family together and feasting on fabulous food. Some traditional dishes include cotechino sausage, liver pate crostini and tortellini in chicken stock. The main dish is lamb. The meal options though differ widely according to the region.
22. Schoolchildren practice for months for the Christmas concert held in front of their teachers and parents either at the school’s hall or in a nearby church. It is a warm and hearty gathering with the adults clapping enthusiastically and waving to their children on the stage. It is quite cute, as children, mid-song, wave back, too. It is all captured on camera, as every parent holds a smartphone.
23. Nowadays more and more Italian children write letters to Babbo Natale, but the original Italian tradition is for children to write letters to their parents to tell them how much they love them. The letters are then read in front of the whole family during the Christmas lunch.
24. Italy is the birthplace of the Christmas Carol. Allegedly, St. Francis of Assisi introduced the Christmas tradition of caroling. Unlike the solemn church hymns, carols were simple songs which people could sing anywhere as an expression of their joy at the birth of Christ.
25. Instead of using them to stuff a turkey, Northern Italians have an even better use for chestnuts. They cook them in sugar syrup and glaze them to make ‘marron glace‘ (also popular in France, as the name suggests). They are very tasty and make a very elegant Christmas gift. My favourite sweet shop in Vicenza (see the first point in this list) is currently selling them for 6.50 euros per 100 grams. Make sure you treat yourself to at least one!
So, here you have it! The first part of my mammoth list ’50 Christmas Facts About Italy’. I will be posting the second portion of it within the next few days, so keep an eye on the blog so as not to miss it.
In the meantime, let me know if you want to add anything to this list, based on your own experience of Christmas celebrations in Italy.
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