Monday, December 14, 2009

Christmas In Italy - Part One

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? I have three blogs to do this month, and I’ve decided to make this a three-part look into Christmas in Italy, so I hope you’ll stay with me! I’ve also made a lovely video, with the help of a friend in Italy, the music you’ll recognize, the language is of course the lyrical and beautiful Italian...

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.

Christmas Eve

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).

Buon Natale!

Special thanks to the following sites and people for their help in preparing my Christmas Posts: News From Italy, The Italian Notebook, Dream of Italy, and my wonderful friend Stefano Testatonda.

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