Italian Christmas traditions I love

When it is Christmas don’t you wish you could be small again?

Do you remember the excitement, your heart pounding running to see what Father Christmas had brought you? The magic of Christmas through the eyes of a child is just so wonderful.

In Italy Christmas does not end on the 26th but it carries on until the 6th of January with Epiphany.. so Christmas is more “diluted” in fact Italians often say “Buone Feste” or “Happy holidays” instead of just “Happy Christmas”.

Here are my favourite traditions of the Christmas period:

Santa Lucia on December the 13th.

Children get a “taste” of Christmas on December the 13th with the arrival of Santa Lucia (St. Lucy), she is like a mini Father Christmas.

Lucia was a girl from Sicily who died as a martyr and was later made the patron saint of sight. She was almost always depicted with her gouged-out eyes on a plate.. gruesome I know but this is an ancient figure dating back to the third century.

The cult of Santa Lucia is celebrated all over Italy, she arrives on a donkey and brings lots of gifts and sweeties for the children. I used to put my shoes outside my bedroom and I would wake up to find them filled out with goodies.

Some regions instead celebrate San Nicolo’ or Saint Nicholas on December the 6th.

Santa Lucia

Santa Lucia

The Nativity scene

The Nativity Scene is one of my absolute favourites, it is an essential element of the Catholic traditional Christmas.

In Italy the main focus has always been on the nativity rather than the Christmas tree. As a child I used to go out with dad to get moss and wood in the woods to make our nativity, usually in our sitting room. I had hours of fun making mountains, roads, ponds and rivers and every year I would buy more sheep, shepherds, houses, and figurines representing stereotypical figures of village life.

Most villages usually have their own nativity scene, usually churches and sometimes coffee bars have their own one too!

If you happen to be in Naples at this time of year, you would see how nativity scenes represent true art; the statuettes are often hand carved out of wood or they are made of ceramic, or silver, they are just so beautiful and made by real artisans.

Nativity scene

 

Ceppo

A classic Italian Christmas’ eve tradition still practiced in some parts of Italy, is burning a yule log on the hearth. The log would be dragged into the house and slowly burned while all the family would celebrate singing festive songs with good food and a glass of wine. The log signified good fortune for the new year and it would then be left on the hearth for the following 12 days of Christmas until Epiphany.

The Zampognari

Traditionally the “zampognari” or pipers were shepherds coming down from the mountain to entertain crowds with their music.

These days you can find them entertaining Christmas shoppers in many Italian cities usually in their traditional colourful costumes often made of sheepskin vests with long dark cloaks, knee-high breeches and white stockings.

Watch this zampognari’s video!

Panettone, Pandoro and Torrone.

Yum.. my mouth waters just by mentioning them! Panettone and pandoro are classic Italian Christmas cakes: panettone usually has raisins and candies whereas pandoro, typical from Verona has a softer and more buttery consistency. I love pandoro especially!

Italian Pandoro

Italian Pandoro

Torrone, or nougat, made with sugar, honey, eggwhite and nuts can never miss on the Christmas table. Some time ago I made a chocolate version of torrone with hazelnuts which was really delicious.

Torrone - Nougat

Torrone – Nougat

La Befana!

We say: ” L’Epifania tutte le feste si porta via”, Epiphany takes away all the festivities and it is true as everything will over after the 6th of January…and by then we probably all had enough of wolfing down food and non-stop celebrating!

As a child (and I must say still to these days) I was literally obsessed with the befana, which is a witch… but a nice one, who brings small gifts and sweeties to children on Epiphany day, the 6th January.

Epiphany is a Christian feast and it is the day when the Three Kings, guided by a star, reach Baby Jesus. They went to worship him and bring him gifts.

If you haven’t been good the befana would bring you charcoal.. yes but sweet coal! I used to love it! These days I could not possibly eat it as it is as hard as rock, a lethal weapon for your teeth!

 

The Befana charcoal

And I wonder what I will be getting this year.. I already dusted by stocking… cannot wait to find out!

la befana

 

The big Epiphany bonfire!

The tradition of lighting a bonfire on the day of Epiphany is pre-christian and steps right back to the Middle Ages, a period of demons and magic. This was acquired and adapted by the Christian tradition. It is very popular in the north-east of Italy.

Lighting a bonfire meant saying goodbye, therefore what had not been good of the past year was burned. Basically a good wish for the new year.

And let’s toast to the new year, to a good prosperous 2016!

big Epiphany bonfire

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12 Responses to Italian Christmas traditions I love

  1. Diana

    What a great overview of all the fun happenings during the holiday season!

    • Alida

      Grazie cara 🙂

  2. Elisabetta

    I’ve absolutely loved reading this post. We also share a good number of Christmas traditions. “Building” a nativity scene at home and in churches. The Christmas Tree, wreathes, garlands and fairy lights are the norm. Many families will decorate on the 8th December L’Immacolata. It’s food and more food all the way up to the eve of the Epiphany when we have a Three Kings Cavalcade. Not to mention praying to Sta Lucia when we have eye problems!!

    • Alida

      You are right food and more food! And by the 6th of Jan we cannot take no more. I always stock up on panettoni and end up with a few left after Christmas which I love dipping in my espresso 🙂

  3. speedy70

    Un bellissimo post cara Alida… le nostre tradizioni italiane, le adoro!!!!

  4. Dottie Sauchelli Balin

    Dear Alida,
    What a wonderful post…I enjoyed this one as a lot of the customs brought back many happy memories of the past. I think these traditions are so wonderful and I am so happy that I am Italian. There are so many of these that are my favorites, especially the Panettone bread and the Torrone/ I remember my mom putting those in the silver candy dish that I polished when I was young…Thanks all fabulous ways to spread the holiday cheer! Have a grand weekend. Ciao, friend
    Dottie Hugs 🙂

    • Alida

      I can almost see you mum putting the cakes on that silver dish. So festive and special, only mammas have this kind of touch!

  5. gloria

    Che bello Alida !! I love Christmas traditions too !!
    Buon Natale cara amici <3 <3

    • Alida

      Grazie cara.

  6. la cucina di Molly

    Che bello il Natale con tutte le nostre tradizioni, l’aria natalizia si sente sin dal giorno dell’Immacolata, che bello! Felice weekend, ciao!

  7. Donna DeGrau

    I love the la Befana doll you have pictured on this page! Where can I get one just like it? I have been searching for years now. Buon Natale!

    • Alida

      Look on ebay under “Befana bambola” you will find all sorts there priced in US$.

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