25 December 2020

Natale – Christmas Day

Celebrating Christmas the Italian way

A Christmas tree in Piazza Vecchia in the historic  northern Italian city of Bergamo
A Christmas tree in Piazza Vecchia in the historic 
northern Italian city of Bergamo
Christmas Day in Italy is the culmination of a celebration that - officially, at least - begins on 8 December with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, at which point towns light up their Christmas illuminations and trees are erected in public squares.

It also sees nativity scenes - called presepi in Italian - unveiled in many towns and cities, a tradition that goes back to 1223, when St Francis of Assisi, inspired by being shown the birthplace of Jesus on a trip to the Holy Land, ordered the creation of a scene representing the birth as a focal point for worship. A local cave was the setting, with straw spread on the floor, a crib placed in the corner and a live donkey, ox and a dozen peasants representing the principles in the scene. 

Although living participants have been replaced by model figures for the most part, the stable scene remains at the heart of the idea.  Specialist model-makers have made an industry out of creating presepi figurines, with Naples a notable centre.

Just as in many other countries, Christmas itself is celebrated around food.

Large nativity scenes go on display in town and city centres across Italy
Large nativity scenes go on display in town
and city centres across Italy
La Vigilia di Natale - Christmas Eve - is marked by Cenone di Natale, a Christmas supper usually comprising several fish courses followed by a dessert of panettone, the Italian Christmas bread, or perhaps cannoli, which are pastries consisting of a tube of fried dough stuffed with a sweet, creamy made from ricotta cheese.  After the meal, many adults walk to the local church to welcome in Christmas at midnight mass. 

Likewise, Christmas Day itself is one of feasting, based around a lunchtime meal. While the children open their presents, the adults savour a glass of good Prosecco or uncork a special vintage bottle while they prepare the festive table.

Friends and relatives who drop in with presents or to exchange good wishes will be offered a glass of wine and nuts, biscuits or torrone (a type of nougat from Cremona).

Antipasti is likely to include Parma ham or bresaola, served with preserved mushrooms, olives or pickled vegetables.

Stuffed pasta is usually served as a first course, either in the shape of ravioli or tortellini, which are said to have been offered as Christmas gifts to priests and monks during the 12th century. In the south a baked pasta dish is often served.

For the main course, turkey or capon is likely to be served in the north of Italy, with potatoes and vegetables as side dishes. Veal, beef and chicken might be served in the south.

The traditional end to the meal is almost always panettone, served warm accompanied by a glass of sparkling wine or Prosecco. 

Salute e Buon Natale from Italy On This Day!

Torrone, the nougat made in Cremona
Torrone, the nougat made in Cremona
Travel tip:

Cremona in Lombardia is famous for producing confectionery. Negozio Sperlari in Via Solferino specialises in the city’s famous torrone (nougat). The concoction of almonds, honey and egg whites was created in the city to mark the marriage of Bianca Maria Visconti to Francesco Sforza in 1441, when Cremona was given to the bride as part of her dowry.

Panettone is believed to have originated in Milan
Panettone is believed to have
originated in Milan
Travel tip:

Milan, the main city in Lombardia, is believed to be where panettone originated.  It is said to have been concoted by a Milanese baker, Antonio (Toni), to impress his girlfriend at Christmas time in the 15th century. The result was so successful that ‘Pane de Toni’ has become a regular feature of the Christmas season all over Italy and now even abroad.

On this day:

800: Charlemagne crowned Holy Roman Emperor

1874: The birth of soprano Lina Cavalieri

1988: The birth of singer-songwriter Marco Mengoni


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