Christmas Customs in Northern Italy
Natale viene una sola volta un’anno.
This time-honored proverb, translated as “Christmas comes but once a year,” originated in Italy. The now often used phrase illustrates the Italian tradition of celebrating the Christmas season with more fanfare and festivity than anywhere else in the world – in fact, Italy commemorates Natale with various festivals, religious ceremonies and customs for over six weeks, from the beginning of December to the middle of January.
Christmas celebrations in Italy are as different and varied as the rich foods and unique dialects of the nation. Each of the 20 regions claims its own traditions and customs in observance of the holiest time of year.
Last week, the Italian Tribune introduced readers to some of the traditions of Sicily. This week, we present the second in the series, featuring the customs of the northern regions of Valle d’Aosta, Emilia-Romagna, Trentino-Alto Adige, Piedmont, Veneto, Lombardy and Fiuli-Venezia Giulia.
This Christmas, in addition to the “Christmas Customs” series, check out other exciting Christmas features in today’s newspaper and throughout the month of December.
Italy’s northwestern-most region is famous for its pristine ski slopes and chilly climate. Valle d’Aosta is bordered by the Alps on each side, which trap the cold mountain air in the unspoiled valley. The frostiness of this Italian region inspires a unique tradition enjoyed throughout the Christmas season; local residents celebrate by sharing the Coppa dell’Amicizia, “Cup of Friendship”. This holiday drink is made from a combination of espresso, grappa, orange or lemon, sugar and a regional liquor called genepy. The warm concoction is served in a grolla, an artisan-made carved wooden bowl featuring numerous spouts and is passed around among friends who may sip the drink and enjoy its warmth.
Valle d’Aosta is also home to a famous market called Verrès, which is held annually on the Sunday before Christmas. In the center of Aosta, the capital of the region, scores of local merchants and artisans gather to sell their wares.
This north central region is known as the ‘gastronomic capital’ of Italy, perhaps best known for its food. It’s no surprise that here, Christmas celebrations are centered on authentic, traditional foods in commemoration of God’s gifts, family togetherness and the holiday spirit of giving and sharing.
In the weeks leading up to Christmas Day, Emilia-Romagna’s cities and villages host outdoor markets where artisans, craftsmen and various merchants offer holiday treats, including the traditional Christmas season delicacies of cotechino and zampone. Both with origins in Modena, which is also home to the finest balsamic vinegar in the world, cotechino is a fresh pork sausage, while zampone is a pig’s foot stuffed with minced pork. When served with lentils, cotechino and zampone are said to ensure a new year of good luck for the diner. Besides Christmas foods, the markets also feature tree trimmings, gifts, toys and handcrafted presepio figurines.
One of the largest of the region’s Christmas markets is the Mercatino di Natale al Granaio dei Malatesta, held for five days every December at Piazza Silvagni in the town of San Giovanni in Marignano. Others include Bologna’s market held along the Strada Maggiore, outside the Church of Santa Maria dei Servi and on Via Ugo Bassi, as well as those in Reggio Emilia and Cesenatico.
Known as “The Rooftop of Italy,” the Trentino-Alto Adige region is located high in the Alps and Dolomites of the northeast corner of the Italian peninsula. During the Christmas season, wealthy Europeans flock to the Alto Adige area to enjoy ski slopes that often tower above 10,000 feet. However, the majority of this region’s residents are devout Catholics and look upon Natale as a deeply holy season, during which it is appropriate to give thanks and celebrate the Lord’s blessings.
In this spirit, several traditional festivals are held throughout this time. The village of Tesero is famous for its splendid revival of the ancient Cantori della Stella, “Star Singers,” held from Christmas day through the Epiphany on January 6. Choirs from various regional parishes travel from house to house singing Christmas hymns and songs, collecting gifts and donations to be gifted to the church. It is from this Italian tradition, also known as Rassegna della Stella, ‘Star Review,’ or Dei Tre Re, ‘Of the Three Kings,’ that American “Christmas Caroling” derived.
Located just below Valle d’Aosta, the region of Piedmont also boasts a beautiful terrain of mountains and valleys. Many residents of the region’s tiny villages celebrate the season by participating in living nativity scenes called “presepi” in Italian, on Christmas Eve. These are followed by gatherings in which the “actors” join the audience to share holiday treats such as hot vin brûlé, a spicy wine-chocolate drink, roasted chestnuts and grappa.
The town of Alagna hosts the most distinctive presepio display in the region, featuring ice-carved statues of the Madonna, San Giuseppe, the Magi and angeli, as well as the other Biblical figures and animals who witnessed the birth of the Bambino Divino. The demonstration is attended by Piemontese from throughout the region, as well as revelers from other areas of Italy.
In northern central Italy we visit the region of Lombardy, home to Milan. The city is perhaps the most modern of Italy’s largest metropolises and it’s also an international capital of fashion and design – so it’s no surprise that the Milanese celebrate the Christmas season in style.
Every year, thousands of locals and tourists visit the famed Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II to view the incredible Swarovski Crystal Christmas Tree. The tree, which has become a new tradition in Italy, is reminiscent of New York City’s Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree. Towering above the beautiful Galleria as a symbol of the festive season, the pine tree is decked out in beautifully handcrafted crystal ornaments and strung with over 10,000 lights. Visitors to the tree are invited to purchase limited edition ornaments, the proceeds of which benefit a different charity every year.
Of course, Milan residents never forget the traditional principles of Christmas. In observance of the Epiphany, the city hosts the Corteo dei Re Magi, “Parade of the Three Kings.” Participants follow a route from the Duomo to the church of Sant’Eustorgio, where presents are distributed among the poor and a Mass is celebrated.
The Veneto region of Italy, best known as the home of Venice, is located in northeast Italy. Although the region’s easternmost border offers miles of coastline, much of the Veneto’s landscape includes mountains.
For centuries, Venetians have marked the start of the holy Christmas season with Fiaccolate degli Sciatori, “Skiers Torchlight Parades.” Hundreds of skiers bearing colored torches, most often in hues of red, white and green, join together in a procession down their local slopes to create an impressive holiday blaze that lights up the midnight sky. Prior to the parade, the skiers dine together at tables positioned in prime locations atop the mountain so that they may enjoy the splendid views of the Italian Alps and Dolomites, as well as the traditional foods of the region. In modernity, the Fiaccolate has inspired many imitators who now host their own torchlight parades in notable ski resorts around the world.
In Venice itself, town officials are sure to decorate their city’s famous bridges with glittering Christmas lights.
Friuli-Venezia Giulia is one of the youngest of Italy’s regions, established after World War II and located to the far northeast of the boot. The economy of Friuli-Venezia Giulia relies on industries that derive from natural materials such as agriculture, wooden furniture making and the raising of cattle for beef production.
Because the livelihood of the region’s residents is almost solely dependent on the land, their commemoration of Christmas includes a ritual that celebrates the earth. Following the traditional festivities that take place on Christmas Day, locals meet at the summits of Friuli-Venezia Giulia’s rolling hills to burn their unneeded household items in huge bonfires called pignarul. The burning of old possessions is symbolic of purifying the earth and its people so that the coming year may bring both bounty and good luck.
The pignaruli can be seen for miles and often attract visitors who are traveling through the region on the autostrada, who are always welcomed to the party by the friendly Friulians.