Our Italian Adventure: Christmas in Italy
Updated: Jan 3
How we moved to Italy. Christmas season in Italy vs. California
PART 24: I thought it might be interesting to share how we pulled off living in Italy for part of the year. I will post some steps we took.
We are in Puglia until the end of September, then back again in the winter.
Step 1: I've lived in Italy twice. First throughout the 1980s in Rome and then in Puglia today. We are following the 90/90 model (90 days in 180 days). An advantage of following this model is that we get to step back and reflect on our Italian life while in California.
So what about celebrating Christmas? How is it the same? How is it different?
Note that I am simply relating my personal experiences here. I would be happy to hear yours also (in the comments)!
Step 2: The first difference I noticed when I moved to Italy (both times) is that there is a distinction between the preparation for the holiday (Advent in the church calendar) and the season of Christmas. This distinction is not as pronounced in much of the Anglo world but is marked out in Italy through customs, rituals, and foods.
The second difference I noted was the length of the seasons.
As a child, I remember how abruptly Christmas seemed to end. I longed for it to arrive, and then, when it did, by the 26th, it was over. We already had our stripped tree on the curb before the new year and cleaned the house of decorations.
In Italy, I was surprised that Christmas is not a day, but a season, which extends until January 6.
Step 3: Preparation for Christmas (Advent): Though the church calendar shows that Advent begins four weeks before Christmas, in many Italian households, the decorations, tree, and creche (minus the Christ child statue) come out on December 8, the holiday and feast of the Immaculate Conception.
In the 1980s, I was in an Italian seminary; nine days before Christmas, we were led to a freezing church to participate in prayers and songs in preparation (Novena). Christmas carols were not sung until Midnight mass and would continue until January 6.
There was a nativity scene in the church, but a group of Americans (myself included) went to the priest in charge to ask if we could also get and decorate a Christmas tree. "Absolutely not!" he exclaimed. "That is a pagan symbol and has no place in a seminary!"
When the Vatican set up a tree in front of the basilica the following year, he kept his mouth shut.
In Italy, December 8 is a religious and civic holiday. In some areas of Puglia communities gather to build a big bonfire on that day. There are various explanations for its meaning: some believe that it symbolizes purification from sin or impurities, others that it is a type of prayer asking that the land be fertile this year. The fire is often accompanied by tastings of regional wines, dishes like the puccia (roll filled with cheese and sometimes tuna), and Baccalà, or fish.
Another custom in Italy that struck me as different than in California was the focus on the Nativity scene. In the neighborhood in Rome where I lived, there was a yearly contest in which children would create the coolest nativity scene, and the priest would come and visit each one, take notes, and then decide on the three top winners.
But the nativity scenes never had the statue of the baby before Christmas eve.
Step 4: Christmas day. Let's start with the food.
We all know about panettone, so I'll skip that here. I love it, overeat it, and it is now available everywhere in the US. Enough said about panettone.
As many know, foods in Italy are regional, so what one may cook for a Christmas feast, say, in the Dolomites, will be different from Lecce.
My experience of Christmas eve meals begins in Rome, where we ate fish or vegetarian dishes as a nod to a Christmas eve fast of previous ages. Nothing extravagant, but it was/is always a nice fish-based meal.
Some regions of Italy have more elaborate traditions of serving seven types of fish on Christmas eve and other specific dishes marked out for the eve of the great feast.
Meals on Christmas day are incredible multi-dish, multi-serving creations. In Italy, I have had the privilege of experiencing Christmas dinners (pranzo) in homes, seminaries, and restaurants.
Let's talk about restaurants.
My experiences of Christmas day meals at restaurants have not been great. When we did dine out, we had no choice since we were traveling.
I frequented a restaurant a bit off the beaten path not far from Piazza Navona in Rome. The food was always fine.
We were in Rome on Christmas day one year and hoped for an excellent festive meal. This restaurant was open, so my partner and I slipped in, got a table, and were served a pretty bad meal.
Some years later, we were in Assisi, and I knew we would need to eat somewhere on Christmas day. So I researched and read Yelp reviews and found one with high marks, so I made a reservation a month beforehand.
Since we arrived in Assisi the day before, we asked some locals where we could eat that same day, and they directed us to a restaurant not far from the main square. We made our way there and had an incredible meal of freshly prepared Umbrian food. The next day we went to the restaurant I found on the internet. To make a long story short, the food was not great.
The moral of this story: Always, yes, always ask a local about food.
Another rule of thumb is to avoid tourist restaurants, especially on Christmas day, but that isn't easy to do when traveling.
Now let's talk about nativity scenes.
Visiting nativity scenes is a wonderful tradition for Christmas day and season. I have beautiful memories of living in Rome and strolling through the city with friends after the big midday meal and a short nap. All the churches would be open, displaying their nativity scenes. We knew where the best ones were, with running streams, animated figures, and a rising sun.
Step 5: Christmas season: the Befana. When I first moved to Italy, I was baffled by this weird tradition about a good witch who flies around and gives kids toys or rocks. During my first year in Italy, while in the seminary, one of the guys showed up at lunch dressed up as the Befana. What the fuck, I thought to myself. It sort of shocked me.
But I got used to the story of the Befana and seeing her for what she is: a beautiful legend about seeking and generosity.
There are various explanations of the legend's origin, but the one I like is that the three magi following the star stopped at her village. She offered them lodging. The following day the magi asked if she would like to come with them; she said no. She was too busy. But after they left, she had a change of heart. So she went off to search for them and the Christ child, and she is still on that quest today, leaving candy or coal for children along the way.
I love that story.
Insights: Italy has many Christmas traditions, depending on the region, the town, or the family. What I take from my experience in Italy includes: Christmas has two parts: preparation and season. Secondly, the feast is so big that it cannot be savored in only one day. And January 6, the Epiphany, in many regions, is just as important as December 25 itself.
Merry Christmas to you.
Watch for my book coming around the 1st of the year: "Stories from Puglia: Two Californians in Southern Italy." (https://www.bookdepository.com/Stories-from-Puglia-Mark-Tedesco/9781913680640?ref=grid-view&qid=1671387646362&sr=1-1)
More next time.