Christmas Traditions in Italy

Christmas Colosseum

Let’s face it.  It’s a crazy time of year.   Parties, cards, gifts, holiday concerts, baking, packing, mailing gifts, moving the damn Elf on the Shelf. Things are downright insane.  It’s a shame really because what I want to do every year is slow it all down and really enjoy the season.  Unfortunately, according to my husband, I am afflicted with the Jenga disease.  You know the game Jenga, where you stack wooden blocks higher and higher until the entire thing collapses?   I am the Jenga game when it comes to the holidays.  No matter how organized I am, I just keep adding on task after task until I crumble in a heap of cookie dough, organza ribbon and eggnog. It’s not pretty. This year I have vowed to get back to basics and make things a little saner for everyone, especially my family.  The easiest way for me to do this is to get back to basics and look to the beautiful Christmas traditions from Italy. My memories of Christmas spent in Italy are full of thoughts of friendship, love, music, laughter, good food and good wine. Isn’t that what is most important throughout the holiday season?  Here are a few wonderful holiday traditions from Italy:

The Presepe – there is nothing more moving to me than a Nativity scene.  Be it a living nativity, a painting or a miniature set of figurines on a table, the nativity (or presepe in Italian) is a reminder of why we celebrate the holiday.  I love wandering the streets of Rome and looking for the shooting star over a church indicating the presence of a nativity inside.  Here is one of my favorite memories from a Christmas spent in Umbria.  The nativity in our home is made of stained glass.  It was passed down to me from my mother and my daughter now insists of unwrapping each figurine and arranging them on the table in our foyer.  It is so special.

Tombola – tombola is much like Bingo and is played with family on Christmas Eve and throughout the Christmas season.  It was a favorite with my Elderhostel groups and every year my colleagues and I would run around town buying up little prizes for the event. We would all gather in one of the lounges of the hotel with Christmas treats, wine and a rousing game of tombola.  Here are the rules of the game.  I have not found a set in the US but I am sure that you could make something up that would work just fine. 

Food – like any holiday in Italy  - or any given Sunday – food is the centerpiece of the season.  I look forward to so many yummy Italian tradtions – pandoro, panettone, chestnut everything, torrone.  But this year I am going to attempt one of my absolute favorites:  struffoli.  These little fried balls of goodness are arranged in the shape of a tree and drizzled with honey and decorated with little candy sprinkles.  I am using my dear friend Rose’s recipe.  If you would like the recipe, I will be featuring it in our 12 Days of Italian Christmas  - recipes delivered daily to your inbox for 12 days beginning on December 6th.  Sign up here and you will be added to the list.

La Befana – Santa Claus does not visit Italy but on Epiphany (January 6) the Christmas witch, la Befana, makes her way to homes in Italy.  Legend says:

As legend has it the three Wise Men were in search of the Christ child when they decided to stop at a small house to ask for directions. Upon knocking, an old woman holding a broom opened the door slightly to see who was there. Standing at her doorstep were three colorfully dressed men who were in need of directions to find the Christ child. The old woman was unaware of who these three men were looking for and could not point them in the right direction. Prior to the three men leaving they kindly asked the old woman to join them on their journey. She declined because she had much housework to do. After they left she felt as though she had made a mistake and decided to go and catch up with the kind men. After many hours of searching she could not find them. Thinking of the opportunity she had missed the old woman stopped every child to give them a small treat in hopes that one was the Christ child. Each year on the eve of the Epiphany she sets out looking for the baby Jesus. She stops at each child's house to leave those who were good treats in their stockings and those who were bad a lump of coal. (from Italiansrus.com)

La Befana may just make a stop at our house this year – it’s a great way to keep the spirit of the holidays alive until the true end of the Christmas season. 

I hope you all take the time to truly enjoy this very special time of year.