Christmas in Central and Southern Italy
As Christmas is just around the corner, we bring to you some traditions and customs from the central and southern regions of Italy.
In the capital city of Cagliari, it is traditional to indulge in some Christmas shopping at Cagliari’s market, held every Saturday in the center of town. A special treat is the array of Sardinian holiday sweets. One of the favorite desserts of Sardinian dining tables on Christmas is Pane Di Sapa – garnished with nuts, sapa honey, dry grapes and semola. For chocolate lovers, the Baci di Dama is a great choice. This chocolate concoction is made up of butter flour and sugar, topped off with walnuts. Another popular dessert during Christmas is pistocus de coccuru made with native ingredients like hazelnuts, egg yolks, sugar and freshly squeezed lemon juice.
Christmas Eve in Pizzo Calabro, a seaport town on a steep cliff overlooking the Gulf of Sant’Eufemia, begins with a stroll through the center of the town. Stores are filled with holiday shoppers and you can hear the sound of the zampognari, with their bright red jackets and broad-brimmed hats. Upon the return home, dinner begins with assorted appetizers including crispelle, yeasted fried dough stuffed with salted anchovies and “bottarga,” (tuna roe preserved in salt), a specialty of this historical town, served with homemade preserved olives and stuffed mussels.
The magnificent Royal Palace of Caserta in southern Italy houses the only surviving royal Christmas presepio, which was the focal point of King Charles III’s family from the mid-18th century. As is customary in the entire region, adding to the nativity scene soon became a collective activity of the court. Charles built the beautiful 18th century palace to rival Versailles and the Royal Palace in Madrid and it will host a variety of holiday activities, including concerts and special exhibits of decorations and of course, the presepio.
Christmastime is the ideal moment to visit the Sassi of Matera. The beautiful and charming city is decorated by colorful lights, spicy smells and Christmas songs, which fill the hearts and instill the joy and magic typical of this time of year. The 8th edition of La Natività del Presepe Vivente di Matera Ambientato nei Sassi di Matera, is the largest nativity scene in the world, with more than 1,000 costumed actors and seven scenes of the Nativity.
The town of Tricase, situated almost at the Italian heel, is known as the Bethlehem of Italy. It is also host to a beautiful Presepio Vivente (live nativity scene) on the hillside of Monte Orco. Through this experience, visitors and townsfolk are transported back in time to recreate the real spirit of Christmas;
In the province of Pescara, even those with strong wills who do not over indulge at meals will find it difficult to show restraint when faced with a slice of Parrozzo. The name derives from a simple bread made by Abruzzese shepherds, pan rozzo, made from ground corn, water and a bit of olive oil. In the early 1900s, Luigi D’Amico, a baker in the coastal town of Pescara, took this rather characterless example of cucina povera, or “the poor kitchen” and embellished it with plenty of ground sweet almonds from Abruzzo’s abundant almond groves. He topped off his creation with a coating of rich chocolate and Parrozzo has become one of the iconic sweets of the region.
In Isernia, Christmas Eve finds the fireplace ablaze with the ciocco or Yule log. The head of the household blesses the log and kisses it before putting it in the fireplace. The log burns throughout the night to keep Baby Jesus warm. Before sitting down for the late-evening supper, a game of tombola is played by children and adults alike. The supper begins with a simple but delicious soup made of chick peas, seasoned olive oil and chopped-up anchovies. A favorite dessert tradition is pizzelle, the Italian waffle cookie made from flour, eggs, sugar and flavoring (often vanilla, anise or lemon zest). The name comes from the Italian word for “round” and “flat” (pizze). It is known to be one of the oldest cookies and is believed to have developed from the ancient Roman crustulum.
The Piazza Navona, Rome’s famous Baroque square, is transformed into a huge Christmas market. You’ll find stands selling all kinds of Christmas sweets, toys, nativity figures, decorations and gifts. There’s a merry-go-round and Babbo Natale makes an appearance to delight the kids. In the Church of Santa Maria Aracoeli, the statue of Santo Bambino has an important role in the holiday celebrations. In the 16th century, a statue was carved from a piece of olive wood from the Garden of Gethsemane. According to legend, after the statue was carved it miraculously painted itself. The ship that was returning to Rome with the statue sank but the statue washed up on shore. It was blessed by the Pope and kept in the Church of Santa Maria Aracoeli on the Capitoline Hill. Roman children write their Christmas letters to Santo Bambino and on Christmas Eve the statue is put in the church’s presepio. On January 6, Santo Bambino is paraded down the church stairs and thousands of people join in the procession.
The Christmas season in Orvieto has an annual celebration that provides uniqueness and diversity to this town’s holiday festivities. It is the Umbria Winter Jazz Festival; five days of music, culture and events linked to New Year’s Eve. During the five day celebration, Orvieto offers music all hours of the day. The main events that characterize the festival are the New Year’s Eve dinners which are followed by concerts and jam sessions and the traditional New Year’s Day Mass that takes place in the magnificent Orvieto Cathedral to the accompaniment of a gospel choir.
In Lucca, the Christmas period is accompanied by numerous folkloristic events. There are the sacred miracle plays that recall the evangelical pages of the Nativity, while other festivities date back to ancient times during the winter solstice. Among those are the numerous bonfires, almost as if to assist the rising sun. Processions of people offer their well-wishing songs and go from house to house. In exchange they receive food and drink. In Piazza Antifeatro crowds gather to admire a very different and beautiful Christmas tree; the tree is made entirely of Murano glass!
In the Marche region they have a rather unusual way of preparing their traditional bird, the capon. It is boiled in water on Christmas Eve and when fully cooked, it is left in the pot overnight. On Christmas morning, when all the fat on the broth’s surface is removed and set aside, it’s considered “blessed.” The fat is then stored for future use as an ointment for cuts and burns. During the cenone, a huge variety of regional foods are set on the tables. One of the region’s favorite food specialties is Pizza de Natà – bread made with hazelnuts, almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, raisins, figs, chocolate, grated lemon and orange peel.
During Christmas, residents and visitors to Genoa can stroll through the market of Saint Porphyrius, where craftsmen display their products in the streets and squares of the old town or meander through the mercato di San Nicolo. A must-see attraction is the traditional lighting of the Christmas tree donated by the Fiemme Valley in the Trentino Alto Adige region. Also popular is the “Confuego,” an old tradition consisting in setting alight a large bay tree log, a gift to the Doge of the city by the People’s Representative.