The holiday season is one of the most enchanting times to visit southern Italy. Cities throughout the mezzogiorno light up with shooting stars, dangling lights of red and gold and bold signs declaring “Auguri,” and “Buone Feste,” as shoppers scurry by in their furry scarves and matching gloves from shop to shop.
Although four Christmases have passed since I moved to southern Italy in 2006, December 25, 2010 will mark the first Christmas Day that I’ll be in Calabria. There are certain traditions I’m looking forward to in my attempt to maximize this Calabrian Christmas … some I’ve seen before, others I’ve only heard about through my new Calabrian family or southern Italian friends. And yes, I’m getting excited about all of them. However, there are a few traditions that I’m specifically attracted to. Here are five of them.
Daily Dose of Bread of Gold
Since late November, store shelves have been overflowing with dome-shaped boxes, covered in shades of red, purple or gold and advertising the ever-popular, pandoro … or literally, “bread of gold.” While this is technically a northern Italian invention, along with its cousin, panettone, the cake is also popular throughout the south and for the last week or so, has been my breakfast cake of choice.
Tour of the Presepe
In tradition-rich southern Italy, homes, shops and churches make room for their presepe, or nativity scenes, much like we do for our Christmas trees back home-and just as we pride ourselves on a perfectly placed ornament or hole-less Christmas tree, Italians fuss over their presepe. They are typically several feet long and can take up the better part of a large wall.
Scenes are set, similar to a Department 56 Dickens’ Village, with villagers, a starry night and with the most important character, Baby Jesus, waiting to be placed in his bed of hay on Christmas Eve. Every year, the churches in Catanzaro open their doors for a nightly tour of the presepe, an event I’ve missed every year … except this one.
Put together course, after course, after course, after course of the finest seafood dishes in the Mediterranean and what do you get? Il Cenone! Sometimes called “The Feast of the Seven Fishes,” by Italian-Americans, this Christmas Eve banquet is one southern Italian tradition I’ve always wanted to try and luckily, this year is the year.
However, this dinner event brings with it a whole new set of issues … like choosing dishes, narrowing the menu and most importantly – timing yourself so you can eat-and enjoy!-every last bite.
Yes, yes, Catholics throughout the world celebrate the season with Midnight Mass, however, in my pint-sized hometown in Texas, the 100 Catholics or so who comprise our tiny congregation gather on the evening of the 24th, rather than at midnight. So, yea … I’m looking forward to attending the real deal this year.
A Visit from La Befana
I have to admit I’m a little fascinated … in a quasi-obsessive kind of way, with the idea of a Christmas witch delivering gifts and stockings to people on January 5, the night before the Epiphany. Think about it … in the US, Christmas presents have been opened, trees have been taken down, decorations, stockings and ornaments all boxed and discarded for the next 11 months.
But not in Italy. Oh no, there is more to look forward to and oh yea, I’m looking forward to it.
Have you celebrated Christmas in Italy? What are some of your favorite traditions?Which ones would you want to try if you were here?