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Christmas in Italy – Traditions to live by

Christmas in Italy is a holy day to celebrate the birth of Jesus.  Christmas trees and nativity scenes presepe are often found adorning many homes.  Gifts are exchanged on Christmas eve and Holiday feast are prepared for Christmas day. The presepe or nativity scene is a reproduction of the scene of Jesus’ birth including the crib.  Naples Italy is world famous for their crib making. The first crib scene noted in Naples was called the Presepe Napoletano or Neapolitan Cribs in the year of 1025.  Christmas trees are decorated, but the focal point of decoration is the Nativity scene.

The ceppo is sometime used instead of the Christmas tree and it is a wooden frame several feet high designed in a pyramid shape. Families will often put the Nativity scene with fruits, and candy on the shelves and it will be called the “Tree of Light”.

Feast of Epiphany 
Christmas celebration usually begins around December 8th with the day of Immaculate Conception and ends around Jan 6th. Children in Italy believe in a female version of Santa Claus called La Befana, an old woman who flies on a broom and brings presents. On January 6, the Feast of Epiphany, La Befana goes out on her broom to drop off stockings filled with treats to all the sleeping children of Italy. Just as our children leave milk and cookies for Santa Claus, La Befana also gets goodies left for her to enjoy.
On Christmas day ‘Babbo Natale’ the father of Christmas better known as (Santa Claus) might bring them some small gifts, but the main day for present giving is on Epiphany.

Another Italian tradition is to have the children go caroling with bagpipes and flute players as dressed up as shepherds. Bagpipes are the most common Italian Christmas sound. The zampognari, the shepherds who play the bagpipes, come down from the mountain to perform in the plaza. Shepherds are believed to have entertained the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem.  And today, they perform at every Nativity scene in town.

Yule Log
The Italian tradition of the Yule Log was actually linked originally to the pagan God Thor. Today, families bring a big log into their house to burn for the holiday season, while they drink wine and sing song.  The log signifies a sacrifice, and it is said to bring good fortune.
As with any celebration, food is a big part of it.  The food eaten varies with each region in Italy. Traditionally, a meatless dinner is eaten on Christmas eve such as the feast of seven fishes, followed in many places by a living nativity scene and midnight mass.

The Italian Christmas Cake called Panettone a type of sweet bread originally from Milan, is often eaten after mass with a hot cup of coco. Panettone is a cake made from flour, butter, eggs and sugar with candied citron, raisins and/or candied fruit.

There are many traditional products eaten by Italians during the Christmas season, and two of the most famous are the panettone and pandoro. Italians adore panettone, pandoro and comsume huge quantities of it during the Christmas season.

Pandoro is a traditional Christmas cake made with flour, butter and eggs, which was originally produced in Verona. Verona is not only the town where the first pandoro was made, but remains the place most associated with this delicious creation. This cake, the “pan de oro”, or “bread of gold,” was covered in thin, gold leaves.  The name pandoro, meaning golden bread, perfectly describes its colour, which is provided by the eggs in its batter and its sugary coating. The shape, as previously explained, resembles a star.  The pandoro is often warmed and served with cream, hot chocolate or Nutella.

Torrone is a sweet, hard or soft type of nougat, made of whipped egg whites, honey, sugar and a variety of nuts: hazelnuts are particularly appreciated, but other varieties with almonds, pistachios and walnuts are also delicious.

You can often find it at Christmas street markets or local fairs. Mercatino di Natale is Italian for Christmas market, although they are not a popular as the Germany Christmas markets, they still do have plenty of toys and panettones for all.
La Tombola is form of bingo in Italy that many families play on Christmas eve while waiting to go to mass or on Christmas day after the big feast.
Many of the delights found in Italy at Christmastime can also be found here in Carlsbad as well.  Today at Vigilucci’s Gourmet Market we had a tasting of both the Panettone and Pandoro and they were each delicious in their own way.  The Torrone or nougat can also be purchased at Vigilucci’s Market, which is located on State street in downtown Carlsbad.


Cherimarie Poulos
Carlsbad Food Tours