The Italian Way: Celebrating The Holiday Season
- WTI Magazine #86 Dec 17, 2016
In one of my last classes on traditions and cultural diversity, I had an interesting exchange with non-Catholic students who were having trouble in understanding the value of Christmas in general and for Italians, in particular.
Firstly, let me stress the point that I always make when dealing with local and regional identity: some peculiar aspects of Italian traditions and customs are so old and carry so much value in the Italian vision of human society, that any attempt to provide a synopsis on them becomes Herculean. Thus, I will be forgiven if in my answers to my students and the brief comment on this page, I provide a short rounded description in the scope of giving a picture that transcends these pages.
Christmas is one of the most important celebrations in the catholic calendar, and for Italians, the most articulated period of well-executed celebratory performances. The whole period starts around December 8th, the holy day of St. Immaculate, day when many families in Italy start decorating their houses and prepare the Christmas tree and the famous presepe (The Nativity).
It is worthy to mention that the first presepe we have documentation of is due to St. Francis who, in 1223, presented the first “living scene” of the nativity in Greccio (not to far from Rieti, in Lazio), a tradition that continues as per today at the Sanctuary of St. Francis.
If the Saint Patron was the first to start a secular custom, everywhere in Italy, the tradition has taken several shapes with regional representations so distinctively interesting that we can now talk of the “Neapolitan Presepe” (with a representation of the old Naples in the XVIII century and earlier), the Alpine Presepe, where the Nativity sets and figures are crafted according to a woodcarving heritage that goes back several hundred years and that makes some Alpine places, such as the Val Gardena, renowned in the world and not only for its natural beauty.
Or the Presepe Bolognese whose tradition dates back the XIII century and that sees the characteristic figures all carved in clay included the clothes. The oldest example (XII) of this Nativity can be still seen in St Stephen’s Basilica in Bologna. Not to mention the very singular urban reproduction of the nativity according to the School of Genoa that makes this example even more fascinating when we consider its modern flavor.
However, the Christmas celebrations are not simply linked to customary traditions but also, and maybe especially, to those culinary expectations that some Italian communities enjoyed only in these very precious days.
I am talking about those very special dishes that in some parts of Italy are prepared only for the 24th, 25th, and New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. Not going into the details of the dishes as my article wants to keep an overview on the cultural essence of these traditions, I must list some of the most popular dishes that “need” to be prepared in this period: the “cappelletti” or “tortellini” cooked in chicken broth or with butter and sage, popular in regions such as Emilia Romagna, Umbria, Marche, Tuscany and Lazio.
While “Lasagna” remains a must in the Campania menu, very special is the “Minestra maritata” in which the “marriage” between meat (pork, beef, and chicken) and vegetables (mainly escarole) dates back the Spanish domination in the South of Italy.
The Abbacchio (lamb cooked in the oven with sage and rosemary and served with a special garlic sauce) is the selected option in the Roman homes, but also in Abruzzi (served roasted), in Puglia (with red onions) or in Sicily and Sardinia with potatoes; the stuffed chicken (the Italian version of the American Thanksgiving turkey) is very popular in regions such as Lombardy, Tuscany, Umbria, Liguria, Piedmont and Marche, where it is often served with local vegetables and unique sauce.
Fish is obviously the must option for the dinner of 24th: Baccala’ (a kind of cod) served in probably 15 different versions (fried, boiled, sauté and so forth), eel, clams and octopus represent that special iconic picture of the most important eve in the calendar year.
The flavor and taste of the special Christmas menu can be prolonged by listing hundreds of very popular dishes such as soup with chestnut and chickpeas; soup with escarole and cauliflower; strascinati (a kind of fresh pasta) with meat ragù; pettole (fried dough with anchovies); scilatelle (or fileya) with pork ragù; fried vegetables (artichokes, zucchini and eggplants), kebabs of lamb, chicken or pork in delicate sauces.
Also, there are several typical local desserts: fried calcionetti (with almond and chocolate); figs with chocolate; struffoli; rococo; torrone; the Christmas Panone of Bologna (with apple, honey, dark chocolate); the gubana (typical cake of the Friuli Venezia Giulia with nuts, almonds, wine and rhum); pampegato; pangiallo; pandolce, fristingo (a mixture of figs, chocolate and dried fruit); calciuni (with chestnuts and vanilla).
These selections cannot but be accompanied by the special wines and spirits for the occasions: Cirò, liquirizia and “grappa al peperoncino”, Pignoletto from the Bologna Colli, Sangiovese, Rossese di Dolceaqua, Vernaccia di Serrapetrona, wine called “cotto” and wine of visciole (from local cherries), Montepulciano or Trebbiano wines and so forth.
In sum, what I wished to share with my students and in this page is the awareness and understanding that, as many fundamental traditions in the human history, Italians are extremely “diligent” in their observance of those traditions (either in preparing the Christmas decorations or in spending hours in the kitchen) that have been passed from generations to generations. Every year these traditions are solemnly performed, not for social pressure, but rather for a deep sense of belonging to the local community and identity. Thus, Viva il Natale one more time!