I must admit, that I have never been much of a fan of Christmas, since at the age of 9 or 10 I became very disillusioned on abruptly discovering that Father Christmas was in fact not real. I was absolutely devastated. How I had been duped !!! However, my dear mother Tina always loved Christmas. She seemed to forever see Christmas through the eyes of an innocent child, even when she was in her 80’s! I miss her so.
I can recall, when I was quite young, that Mum used to delight in taking me on shopping trips to London to visit the large department stores with their glittering, alluring window displays. Here I would be enticed to visit dear Olde Santa in his magical twinkling grotto. However, so fervent was her passion, that in the period leading up to Christmas I was taken to visit Santa in several different stores.
Even at the age of 4 or 5 I must have developed quite an enquiring mind, as I soon began to deduce that each of the Father Christmas somehow looked subtly different, ie in their stature, the colour of their boots and belts.
Here in Italia Christmas is still largely a catholic religious festival, centred on the original meaning of the event. Sadly, I myself am not a believer, however I feel the duty to respect and acknowledge these ancient beliefs and antique traditions.
In fact, it is very heartening that Christmas here in Italy seems to be far less commercialised compared to in the UK and the USA. It is not until around mid November that the shops begin to get set up for Christmas shopping, and even then it seems to be a fairly low key affair.
Outside their premises some shop keepers lay out cheery red or green felt on the pavements, and display Christmas trees decorated with ribbons and bows, and assorted dangling pasta shapes that have been gilded with gold spray paint, creating a jolly festive atmosphere.
One thing that it is not easy to find in Italy are Christmas cards. Occasionally they are sold individually, and then choice is very limited, the quality very poor, and they are invariably very over priced.
In the weeks leading up to Christmas traditionally shepherd pipers, known as pifferai and zampognari, would come down from the mountainous regions of the Abruzzi to herald the pending birth of the Christ child, by playing their traditional festive music. The ciaramella is a wooden flute, and the zampogna is a type of reed bag-pipe, the air sacks of which are traditionally made of goat or sheep skin and the flutes are commonly carved of olive wood.
They still come, clothed in their local costumes. They sport an unusual type of foot ware, known as the ciocia, which is said to date back to Etruscan times. This consists of a rudimentary leather sole which towards the toe curves upwards. This is held in place by long straps which are tightly bound around the foot and calf.
This type of footware is part of the local costume of the people of Ciociaria, who take their name from this unique type of shoe. My mother’s family originated from this region.
Many churches erect a special Nativity tableau, called a presepe, many with figurines that have been created by traditional artisans. Naples is well known for its artisans who hand-craft these intricate scenes. Indeed, there is a street in Naples called Via San Gregorio Armeno that is full of little shops that display such nativity scenes. There is also a museum.
In certain towns it is possible to see a “living” Nativity scene, with real people and children dressed in costumes, acting out the traditional story. One such village near to us is Maranola (see the link below).
A Living Nativity at Maranola
Around this period many stores start stocking up with items for creating festive nativity displays. It is a Christmas tradition in most Italian families to set up a presepe in their homes, some are more elaborate and fanciful than others.
The figurines are not just restricted to the basic Mary and Joseph, the baby Jesus, the shepherds and the three kings. Indeed, there is a huge range of statuettes available such as glittering winged angels, lowly farmyard animals, and figures depicting traditional crafts, skills and pastimes.
These figures range from rather tacky mass produced plastic specimens to more tasteful hand crafted statuettes.
Some cribs incorporate pastoral village scenes with little model houses, stables, farmyards, bridges, caves, and snow capped mountains.
There are other essential accessories to further embellish one’s Christmas display, such as cork, moss, bark, straw, painted backdrops, fairy lights and even electrically driven streams, wells, water-wheels and windmills.
However, the nativity scene is not normally put out on display until after the 8th December, which is the feast of the Immaculate Conception which is marked by a Public Holiday. The 13th of December is the feast of Santa Lucia also known as “The Festival of Lights”.
Il bambino Gesù, is laid in the manger at midnight on Christmas Eve and not before. The majestic Magi are added to the display on the day of the Epiphany, 6th January.
Sometimes nativity scenes are handed down through the family, from one generation to another.
I recall one year, many moons ago, my aunty Lina sent over a parcel containing a small crib, with an integral musical box. It played the tune to the well loved Italian Christmas carol: “Tu scendi dalle stelle, O re del Cielo, E vieni in una grotta, Al freddo e al gelo.” As a child I was transfixed by the enchanting scene and the delightful rhythmical tune. The other day whilst rummaging in a box of Christmas decorations I came across it once again, and could not resist winding up the musical box to play the comforting music. This Nativity scene itself is now looking rather jaded and showing its age. I should really work on restoring it.
My mother used to describe to me how my Italian grandfather, or Nonno, used to create their special Nativity scene. Being a skilled carpenter he constructed a splendid wooden crib and would work for many hours, painstakingly creating the display, with mountains made of cardboard and a night sky illuminated by tiny bulbs which ran off a battery. He would use earth for the ground, and flour for the snow. Then he would lovingly position the plaster statuettes of Our Lady, Joseph, the shepherds, kings, angels and animals to complete the scene. Unfortunately one Christmas the poor family cat got somewhat confused and did a “whoopsie” in the middle of the scene !!! I am sure he would have paid for his error! After this Nonno vowed never again to use real soil in the display.
Thus the true Italian Christmas is a celebration of religious faith, of family as well as being a special occasion for a magnificent gastronomic feast, with no expense spared.
On Christmas Eve, La Vigilia, is the most important day in the Italian Christmas calendar, when whole families gather together in anticipation of the birth of the Christ Child. The Catholic faith decrees that no meat is to be eaten on this special day, thus the repast is based on various types of fish and sea food. It is sometimes referred to as the Feast of Seven fishes, so earlier in the day the fish markets and stalls will have been doing a roaring trade selling their bountiful fresh supplies. There is a feeling of great excitement in the air, and throughout the whole day the women folk busy themselves in the kitchen, loving preparing the traditional dishes for this sagra.
The dinner, of numerous courses, commences at around 6 in the evening, starting with various tempting antipasti such as octopus salad, mozzarella, juicy olives, roasted peppers, and picante Provalone cheese. This is normally followed by a pasta dish such as Vermicelli con Aglio e Olio (garlic and olive oil), or perhaps Spaghetti con Vongole (clams). Other dishes to follow may include salted cod (bacalà), anchovies, sardines, squid, octopus, mussels, shrimps and prawns or the more extravagant crabs and lobsters. A firm favourite is capitone, a dish of fried eels and often a larger fish is baked stuffed with garlic, herbs and lemon. In addition several side dishes may be served including artichokes and broccoli. As you can imagine the meal continues for several hours. Afterwards the family sometimes play a game of tombola, which is similar to bingo, until the chiming of the church bell signals it is time for everyone to head off to Midnight Mass.
In these modern times, since the Second World War, Italian children have come to believe in Father Christmas, or Babbo Natale and look forward to receiving presents on Christmas Morning.
Christmas Day, there is another eating extravaganza, this time served at lunchtime. This time the meal consists mainly of meat or carne, often including some baked lasagne and some form of roast fowl or large joint of meat is served. Italian Christmas dolci and desserts include the typical Italian Christmas cake, called Panettone, It is tall and round, and is a cross between a moist sweet egg bread and a light airy cake studded with candied fruit.
Pandoro is somewhat similar, but without the addition of the fruit, and is dusted with icing sugar. Italians seem to love these, and insist on buying each other hundreds of them. In recent years manufacturers have created many new varieties and recipes, but you really can just have too much of them! By the end of the Christmas season all across Italy people’s cupboards are, without fail, crammed full of the things. One wonders what does happen to them, do they ever all get eaten?
Other sweet delights include Torrone – a delicious type of nougat containing hazelnuts and almonds wrapped in rice paper, Panforte – a dense flat cake from Siena containing dried fruits and nuts, Amaretti – biscuits made with ground almonds, Cantucci – traditional almond biscuits from the Tuscany region. Did you know that the word biscotti, the Italian for biscuit, means “twice cooked”.
Homemade favourites are struffoli, which are tiny pieces of dough, that have been deep fried, coated in honey and liberally sprinkled with sugar or hundreds and thousands and zeppole, little fried donuts.
Boxing day is known as la Festa di Santo Stefano, and New Year’s Eve is La Festa di San Silvestro, and the arrival of the New Year, Capodanno, Italians eat lenticchie e zampone, stuffed pigs trotter and lentils. The more lentils you eat the richer you will be, the old saying goes. New Year is welcomed with optimism for the future is usually marked by the letting off of noisy fireworks.
The true Italian tradition was for the children to hang up their stockings by the fireplace or in the kitchen on the eve of the Epiphany, the 6th of January. On this night it is a kindly old lady, known as La Befana, who is said to bring the children presents.
Legend has it that this magical witch was busy sweeping her floor when the “Three Wise Men” knocked on her door and asked her to accompany them to Bethlehem. She declined their offer saying she was too busy with her chores. Next some shepherds called by and asked her to go with them to pay their respect to the newborn son of God. Again she said no. Later she witnessed a wondrous bright star in the night sky, and she decided that perhaps she should go to find the baby after all. So she gathered up some toys and set off to try and catch up with the Kings and Shepherds. She searched and searched in vain to find them or the birthplace of Jesus. It is said that each Christmas she still goes looking for baby Jesus, flying on her broomstick, wandering from door to door, but still she is unable to find him. Instead the good witch leaves little gifts for all the children she finds.
Children are told that if they have been good they will find goodies in their stockings, but if they have been naughty they might only receive pieces of coal. I recall as I child, each year without fail I would find one piece of coal, wrapped in tissue paper, tucked tightly into the toe of my Christmas stocking. Now I know why!
This year we will be spending Christmas in Italy, sadly not near to our family, however safe in the knowledge that we are lucky to be surrounded by good trusty friends we have made here.
We would like to take the opportunity of wishing you, one and all,
a very joyful peaceful Christmas
and we wish you all the very best during the forthcoming year.
Love and hugs from Louie, Paul and the “Woof-Gang”.
Some more of my photos of intricate hand-crafted nativity scenes
More information about the annual Living Nativity held in Maranola
All photos © me Louise Shapcott
(except those marked * which are images in the Public Domain)
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Tre Cancelle Farmhouse Apartments Near Sperlonga and Itri