You can live La Dolce Vita, the sweet life Italian style, during the Christmas holidays. Christmas in Italy is celebrated from December 8 through the day of Epiphany on January 6.
Houses are decorated with lights and trees, and Christmas markets offer various foods, sweets and gifts. Along with the lights and decorations, you’ll find many presepi, nativity scenes, displayed in churches, piazzas, and in homes.
On Christmas Eve, la Vigilia, many people fast by not eating meat until after the midnight mass. Instead they eat a light meal of seafood. Many Italian-Americans have adopted the custom of The Feast of Seven Fishes, where seven courses of fish are served.
At the Vatican, the Pope leads a midnight mass on Christmas Eve and people buy tickets to join the celebration.
On the eve of Epiphany, La Befana, a kind old witch, comes to search houses for the Christ child. Children hang stockings by the fireplace for Befana to fill. If you were good throughout the year, she will leave you some fruits, nuts and sweets. And just like in America, if you were naughty, you will get a lump of coal (black sugar sweets).
Nowadays, Babbo Natale, a.k.a. Father Christmas, brings presents to children on Christmas Eve. But gifts are traditionally exchanged on January 6, the 12th day of Christmas.
How To Have an Italian-Inspired Christmas at Home
Decorations – Set up a Christmas tree of sparkling lights and decorations. Underneath place a nativity scene to remember the birth of Christ. If you are not Christian, you can still decorate with lights and beads. Evergreen trees are also a traditional part of the celebration of winter solstice. Perhaps you can hang a little witch from your tree to remember La Befana.
Prosecco – Start your celebrations with a glass of the Italian version of bubbly. It is an economical alternative to champagne. It’s a little lighter, a little fruitier, and just as festive.
Antepasto – Nibble on a plate of Sicilian olives, some cured meats like salami and prosciutto, roasted red peppers, and a selection of cheeses and nuts.
Vin Brule – My favorite holiday drink. It’s not specifically Italian but it is certainly in the spirit of La Dolce Vita. It’s a simpler version of mulled wine. It’s fun to make and a real crowd pleaser as you set it aflame before consuming. I found this simple recipe for Vin Brule that only has 4 key ingredients:
– 1 bottle of dry red wine
– 3-4 cinnamon sticks
– the peel of 1 orange
– 3-4 tablespoons of sugar
Put all ingredients in a medium sauce pan. Cover and cook on high. When it starts to boil, remove lid and light with a match. Be careful: A beautiful large blue flame will burst out. When the flames dies down, ladle into mugs. Serves 4.
Panettone – In the U.S. people either love fruit cake or they hate it. Fruit cake has been the butt of many jokes over the years. A more palatable version is Italian panettone, a tall fruity sponge cake. It makes wonderful French toast.
Feast of Seven Fishes – This is a fun Christmas Eve tradition where family and friends gather and partake of seven fish dishes. Try not to make them all shellfish and cephalopods. Be creative.
Gifts – In Italy children don’t get dozens of expensive presents during the Christmas season. They get a few well-thought-out gifts from family and friends, and some treats of fruits, nuts and candies. Take a cue from the Italians and try cutting back on the rampant consumerism that has taken over the U.S.
Good Company – As always holidays are a time to celebrate with family. But if you don’t have a family that brings you joy, create your own family with friends who care and understand you. Remember your traditions, and start some new ones.
Buon Natale (Merry Christmas)