A Brief Guide to Christmas in Italy

Bearing in mind Italians’ reputation for flamboyance and passion, it came as quite a surprise to find that Christmas is celebrated in a relatively understated manner in Italy. It remains first and foremost a religious festival, and although it is one of the church’s cheerier ones, it is still treated with a greater degree of reverence than in UK and hence is not subject to anywhere near the same level of rampant and relentless consumerism – thankfully.

First of all, there is barely a hint of the approach of Christmas until the feast of the Immaculate Conception on 8th December, which is when most families put up their Christmas trees and decorations and when town centres turn on their Christmas lights. No giant inflatable snowmen and rooftop reindeer, though, nor any over-the-top light displays that you can practically see from outer space: it really is all very restrained and traditional. And although Father Christmas – aka Babbo Natale – plays a leading role in festivities, the star of the show is very much the baby in a manger along with the rest of the cast of the nativity. Very many families will create their own nativity scene at home as part of their Christmas decorations, and most towns and villages will have one in a central piazza; museums and galleries often put on exhibitions of historical examples, and starting from Santo Stefano (Boxing Day) many places put on a living nativity scene – presepe vivente – complete with ass if not the ox.

This relative restraint is also apparent when it comes to Christmas shopping. People exchange gifts in Italy in much the same way as in the UK and so the shops do get much busier in December, but there is certainly no ‘shop ‘til you drop’ mentality. Shops themselves don’t seem to rely on sales over the Christmas period for their very survival, and there are no over-packaged, over-priced Christmas ‘gift packs’, novelty goods and jokey stocking fillers. Christmas cards are a rarity, as are advent calendars of any kind – even the more traditional variety, never mind those filled with cheap chocolates or toys – and Christmas wrapping paper, gift tags and ribbon can take some tracking down too. But since most shops beautifully gift-wrap even the smallest purchase for you – a couple of years ago one of my purchases for Mr Blue-Shirt came extravagantly wrapped in chocolate-scented paper, for instance – this is seldom much of an issue.

This being Italy, however, what there is definitely an abundance of is food, both in the form of gifts and, more especially, of family-based feasting, which begins in earnest on Christmas Eve (La Vigilia). The centrepiece of meals served on the eve of religious festivals is fish as the idea is to have a giorno magro – literally, ‘a lean day’ – to prepare for the indulgence of the festival itself. That said, la cena della vigilia (Christmas Eve Dinner) is seldom that ‘lean’ as it often consists of several courses. If you are feeling brave (and hungry) enough you could go for the the seven-course festa dei sette pesci (feast of the seven fishes), which represent the seven sacraments. Those who relish a real challenge, though, may opt for nine courses to represent the Trinity (squared for good measure), but some may truly ‘go large’ with twelve courses to represent the disciples, or even thirteen if you include Jesus. 

There is no single, national dish that is the star of the show, though, as Italian cuisine varies so much from region to region. In Naples, for example, salt cod fritters are very popular, in Rome, a soup of broccoli, pasta and arzilla (a type of skate) is traditional, while in Calabria, it’s spaghetti with anchovies and crispy breadcrumbs, and here in Le Marche it has to be stoccafisso all’anconetana, a hearty fish stew made with stockfish (dried cod), potatoes and tomatoes.  Although we have not yet plucked up courage to attempt such an iconic dish ourselves, Mr Blue-Shirt and I do observe the fish tradition, and our previous Christmas Eve dishes have included a Ligurian fish stew, and langoustines poached in a rather moreish shellfish bisque served on homemade linguini. Our hearts weren’t quite in it last year thanks to the Christmas lockdown and so we only managed some fried sea bream in shrimp butter, but this year, homemade seafood ravioli in that yummy shellfish bisque are the most likely choice.

So after your giorno magro, it’s back to meat as the centrepiece of the Christmas Day feast.  But before that, there will probably be a selection of cured meats and cheeses just to whet the appetite, and then there will almost certainly be at least one pasta course – and possibly several. Once again, there is no single, national dish, but pasta in brodo (pasta in broth) is a pretty ubiquitous in the north, while in the south, pasta al forno (baked in the oven) tends to prevail.  When it come to the main course, roast turkey is becoming increasingly popular, but just as common are goose, pheasant, partridge and duck, or, in Le Marche at least, a large joint of porchetta – roast pork. And again, it is quite normal to have more than one meat course.  Heretical though it may seem to our Italian friends, we shall probably give the pasta course a miss, and then for our main course we are going Anglo-Italian this year. We shall be having roast turkey, but it will be accompanied by a sauce made from red wine, pancetta, olives and homegrown figs – oh, and by roast parsnips, which Mr Blue-Shirt smuggled back from the UK recently as they are practically unheard of here.

As far as dessert is concerned, although there is no equivalent of British-style Christmas pudding or mince pies here, dried fruit, nuts and spices in various combinations feature strongly. Frustingo, for instance, is a Marchigian speciality made from a deliciously rich and squidgy mix of dried figs, almonds, pine nuts, raisins, chestnuts and candied peel flavoured with coffee, chocolate, rum and mosto cotto (a syrupy reduction of the leftovers of the wine-making process – and much tastier than it sounds). Probably the only truly national favourites – and two of the very few dishes that are invariably shop-bought rather than homemade – are panettone, the large, domed, brioche-like cake studded with sultanas and citrus peel that originated in Milan, and pandoro (golden bread) the slightly denser, tall, star-shaped cake traditionally dusted with icing sugar that originated in Verona. We fall into the panettone camp, but tend to treat it as an alternative Christmas cake rather than as a dessert. Since neither of us is a big fan of English-style Christmas pudding, however, our dessert always consists of a light, chocolate sponge pudding flavoured with lots of Christmas spices and laced with brandy.

After two days of multi-course dining, you’d be forgiven for thinking that on Boxing Day (Santo Stefano) there is some respite from the feasting. But no. As in the UK, leftovers tend to feature strongly, but in the form of completely re-worked dishes rather than just cold meat with bubble and squeak. Leftover pasta, for example, is mixed with eggs and cheese to create a frittata di pasta (pasta omelette), and leftover meat is shredded and chopped and mixed into a rich tomato sauce to create a hearty stew.  However, giving the chef a break and going out for lunch is just as popular on Boxing Day. Indeed, when I went for a waistband-and-conscience-easing run along the seafront at Civitanova Marche a couple of years ago, most of the town’s beachfront restaurants had come out of hibernation especially for the festive period and every single one of them was crammed with groups of ten, twelve or more, all tucking in to steaming bowls of saffron-scented brodetto (fish stew), huge pans of silky pasta mixed with locally caught shellfish and platters piled high with crispy fritto misto (mixed fried fish). But there still won’t be any large groups (unless they are from the same household) in those beach restaurants this year, as although everything will at least be open, Le Marche is, unfortunately, about to move from the white to the yellow zone over Christmas. And while it won’t quite be business as usual, tables of up to four people will still be permitted, so at least Mr Blue-Shirt and I shouldn’t have to change our plans for Boxing Day lunch…

Buone feste – e buon appetito – a tutti!

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