Christmas in Italy is a special time and is celebrated differently in various regions. Read on to find out how to celebrate the festive season – the Italian way
Christmas is a time of warmth, celebration, gorgeous aromas, and tastes. More than anything, this is a time to bring light, warmth, and joy into the cold stretch of winter that lies ahead until the world blossoms into spring, with candlelight, shared meals, and the delight of simply being together with those we love.
Every European country celebrates the holidays with its own version of the Christmas story, from the beautiful Santa Lucia in Scandinavia, to the scary Grampus of southern Germany and Austria, to La Befana of ancient Italian folklore, with its local beliefs and deep symbolic values.
The legend of the Befana
The legend of the Befana began thousands of years ago, rooted in pre-Christian and pagan rituals. The story goes that when the three Wise Men travelled to Bethlehem, people came from the local towns and villages to accompany them on their journey. But one old woman, who was cleaning her house, said she was too busy to visit the Holy Family; the next day, regretting her decision, she ran to catch up with the others, clutching her broom – but it was too late, they were gone.
In Italian tradition, to make up for her mistake, the Befana flies every year on her broomstick from house to house on the night of January 5th leading to Epiphany on the 6th. (In fact, the Befana’s name comes from the Greek word “Epiphany”, or “revelation,” and she’s closely associated with the end of the old year and the birth of the new.) With a sack on her back, she brings children the gifts she couldn’t give to the baby Jesus, filling Christmas stockings with small gifts, chocolates, and sweets.
The key ingredients for an Italian Christmas
When it comes to Christmas, Italians take their food even more seriously than usual! Christmas Eve is a giorno di magro (a lean day), to help purify the body for the holiday, so most eat a light, meatless meal, with fish or seafood and vegetables, and pasta, followed by a slice of panettone or pandoro after Midnight Mass; on Christmas Day, lunch is the main meal, with pasta in brodo (pasta in broth) or tortellini, and stuffed turkey, followed by panettone, spiced pastries, or other delicious sweets for dessert.
Made with wheat flour, yeast, butter, sugar, eggs, and raisins, panettone as we know it originated in Milan in the 15th century: at that time, wheat flour and yeast were considered special ingredients, and were only used to make bread for religious celebrations. Nowadays, this cake-like bread is often made even richer with a sprinkling of candied orange, or a grating of lemon zest, or chocolate; some people even add a spoonful of mascarpone.
And that’s not all! The Christmas season, with its delicious tastes, smells, family visits, and excited children, continues through to the night of Epiphany, when the Befana, the old lady who was too busy cleaning her house, visits children with her sack of gifts. And on 6th January, the Christmas season is over, marking the beginning of the next great religious tradition: Lent.