The first time we spent Christmas in Italy it came as quite a surprise to find – bearing in mind Italians’ reputation for flamboyance and passion – that it is celebrated in a relatively understated manner. Christmas remains first and foremost a religious festival, and while it is one of the church’s cheerier ones, it is still treated with a much greater degree of reverence than in UK. Consequently, it is not subject to anywhere near the same level of rampant and relentless consumerism.
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 formally turn on their Christmas lights . No giant inflatable snowmen and rooftop reindeer, though, nor any national-grid-dimming light displays that you can practically see from outer space. It is all very restrained and traditional with lots of pine garlands and strings of dainty fairy lights – and mostly plain, clear ones; coloured or flashing ones are still thought a little daring by some. As in the UK, Father Christmas – aka Babbo Natale – plays a leading role in festivities, but here 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 a life-size one in a central piazza and starting from Santo Stefano (Boxing Day) many places put on a living nativity scene – presepe vivente – complete with ass if not 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 almost no over-packaged, over-priced Christmas ‘gift packs’, novelty goods and jokey stocking fillers. Better still, shoppers are largely spared the dubious delights of Mariah Carey, Noddy Holder and Roy Wood played at full blast in practically every shop from November onwards – although I have heard ‘White Christmas’ and ‘Santa Baby’ rather too many times. Christmas cards are a rarity, as are advent calendars of any kind, and Christmas wrapping paper, gift tags and ribbon are still not as easy to find as in the UK, but since most shops will happily gift-wrap even the smallest purchase for you, this is seldom a problem.
This being Italy, however, what there is definitely always an abundance of is food. Attractive, cellophane-wrapped food hampers are extremely popular gifts and can even be found in most supermarkets as well as in specialist ‘foodie’ emporia. The most typical contents are lentils (a symbol of prosperity dating back to Roman times) and zampone (stuffed pig’s trotter, whose fattiness symbolises abundance), which are traditionally both served at New Year. Wine and cheese are also very popular, as are sweetmeats such as torrone, a nougat-like dessert spiked with nuts (or its Tuscan cousin, panforte) and, naturally, the omnipresent panettone. That said, pretty much anything goes, providing it feels a little bit festive and luxurious.
And then, of course, there is all the feasting, which begins in earnest on Christmas Eve (La Vigilia). The centrepiece of all meals served on the eve of religious festivals is fish as the idea is to have a giorno magro (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. There is, for instance, the seven-course festa dei sette pesci (feast of the seven fishes) which represent the seven sacraments. But it can also run to nine courses to represent the Trinity (squared for good measure) or twelve to represent the disciples, thirteen if you include Jesus. There is no single, national dish, 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. While Mr Blue-Shirt and I have not yet plucked up courage to attempt such an iconic dish ourselves, we do observe the fish tradition. But our hearts weren’t quite in it last year and the year before thanks to all the Covid restrictions, so we only managed fried sea bream fillets in shrimp butter. This year, though, we upped our game a bit and went for very thin spada (swordfish) steaks wrapped around a stuffing of olives, capers and anchovies and baked in a rich tomato sauce.
So after your (supposedly) ‘lean day’, it’s back to meat as the centrepiece of the Christmas Day feast. But first, there will probably be a selection of cured meats and cheeses, and this will almost certainly be followed by 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. Incomprehensible (if not heretical) though it may be to our Italian friends, we tend to give the pasta course a miss, and dive straight in with what has become our traditional main course, an Anglo-Italian dish of our own creation that is a prosciutto-wrapped joint of turkey breast and leg rolled around a chestnut, pistacchio and sausagemeat stuffing, served with a sauce made from red wine, pancetta, olives and homegrown figs. This is accompanied by roast parsnips, which Mr Blue-Shirt smuggled back from the UK recently as they are practically unheard of here and a few Brussels sprouts for form’s sake.
As for dessert, although there is no equivalent of British-style Christmas pudding or mince pies here, dried fruit, nuts and spices in various combinations still 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, and pandoro, the slightly denser, star-shaped cake traditionally dusted with icing sugar, both of which are typically accompanied by sweet sparkling wine. We fall into the panettone camp, but tend to treat it as an alternative Christmas cake rather than as a dessert – and don’t tell our Italian friends, but we also like it toasted and spread with butter. Anyway, since neither of us is a big fan of English-style Christmas pudding either, our dessert consists of a variation on a chocolate fondant pudding laced with lots of Christmas spices and studded with chopped brandy-soaked prunes.
After two days of multi-course dining, you’d be forgiven for thinking that on Boxing Day (Santo Stefano) might be another giorno magro. Nope. As in the UK, leftovers tend to feature strongly, but in the form of completely re-worked dishes rather than just variations on cold meat. 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 warming stew. However, giving the chef a break and going out for lunch is just as popular on Boxing Day. When I go for a waistband-and-conscience-easing run along the seafront at Civitanova Marche as usual tomorrow, I am sure to find that most of the beachfront restaurants will have come out of hibernation especially for the festive period and that every single one of them will be 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). On Boxing Day, though, we tend to keep things strictly English so for us it will be cold turkey, pickles and, of course, lashings of yummy bubble and squeak…
Tanti auguri, buone feste – e buon appetito – a tutti!
The photo shows the life-size nativity scene in Montelupone. Note the empty crib: since the photo was taken a few days before Christmas, the Christ Child had not yet arrived.