Christmas, as it is celebrated in Italy, has two origins: the familiar traditions of Christianity blended with the pagan traditions predating the Christmas era. The greatest feast of the ancient Roman Empire, "Saturnalia" (a winter solstice celebration), just happens to coincide with the Christmas celebrations of the Advent. Consequently, Christmas fairs, merry-making and torch processions, honor not only the birth of Christ, but also the birth of the "Unconquered Sun." "Natale," the Italian word for Christmas, is literally the translation for "birthday."
A delightful, but rapidly disappearing tradition in Italy, is the ushering in of the coming festivities by the "Piferari" or fifers. They descend from the mountains of the Abruzzo and Latium playing inviting and characteristic tunes on their bagpipes, filling the air with anticipation for the joyous celebration to come.
Christmas Eve is a time for viewing Italy's artistic and elaborate manger scenes or Cribs. They consist of figurines, in clay or plaster , of the infant Jesus, Mary and Joseph. An ox and ass are nearby because legend has it that they warmed the child with their breath. It is around this basic focal point that individual artisans create their own intricate landscapes. There may be grottoes, small trees, lakes, rivers, the lights of "Bethlehem" in the background, angels hung from wires, and occasionally, even local heroes. The most beautiful Cribs are set up in churches. There is often a contest between churches of the same town for the best Crib. People go from church to church to view and compare the Cribs and displays.
Another tradition is the burning of the Yule log, which must stay alight until New Year's Day. This, again, is an example of pagan and Christian blending. The pagan belief explains the purifying and revitalizing power of fire, and that with the burning log, the old year and its evils are destroyed. Christian legend tells how the Virgin Mary enters the homes of the humble at midnight while the people are away at Midnight Mass and warms her newborn child before the blazing log.
Amidst the general merrymaking and religious observance of Christmas Eve, Christmas tapers (long slender candles) are lighted and a Christmas banquet is spread. In some places, Christmas Eve dinner consists largely of fish. There may be as many as 10 t 20 fish dishes prepared. In Rome, the traditional dish of Christmas Eve is "Capitone," a big female eel, roasted, baked or fried. North of Rome a traditional dish may be pork, sausage packed in a pig's leg, smothered in lentils, or turkey stuffed with chestnuts.
Common throughout Italy are the Christmas sweets: "panettone" (cake filled with candied fruit), "torrone" (nougat) and "panforte" (gingerbread) made with hazelnuts, honey and almonds. All Christmas sweets, as a rule, contain nuts and almonds. Peasant folklore theorizes that to eat nuts favors the fertility of the earth and aids in the increase of flocks and family. In ancient Rome, honey was offered at this time of year so that the new year might be sweet.
On Christmas Eve, Italian children set out their shoes for the female Santa Claus, La Befana, to fill with gifts of all kinds like toys, candies and fruit. If the children were good, their shoes would be filled on Christmas morning. If they were bad, they would find their shoes filled with coal. La Befan is the best-known legend in Italy.
Traditional Dishes From Italy...
1 lb. hazelnut meats, coarsely chopped
1 lb. confectioner's sugar
1 oz. cocoa (2tbls.)
2 tsps. cinnamon
5-6 egg whites
Preheat oven to 325 F. Cut baking pan liner paper or brown paper to fit 2 baking sheets and grease lightly. Put hazelnuts, confectioner's sugar, cocoa, and cinnamon in a large bowl; add egg whites and mix well until mixture is well blended--about 5 minutes. Wet hands with water and break off small pieces of mixture (about 1 tbl.) and shape into round balls. Place on baking sheets, 1 inch apart, and bake for approximately 30 minutes. Makes approx. 3 ½ dozen.
3 tbls. olive oil
4 med. zucchini, thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 tbl. vinegar
¼ cup water
Salt and pepper
3 tbls. pine nuts
In a large skillet, heat oil and sauté garlic for 2 minutes. Add zucchini and sauté on both sides until golden. Sprinkle with pine nuts, raisins, and salt and pepper to taste and simmer for 3 minutes. Mix vinegar with water and pour into skillet; cover and simmer slowly until zucchini is tender--about 10 minutes. Discard garlic; cool and serve at room temperature.
2 cups water
1 cup margarine
4 cups sifted flour
¼ tsp. salt
10 large eggs
16 oz. honey
½ cup pine nuts, toasted
1/3 cup candied orange peels
½ cup (multicolored) cake-decorating sprinkles
Preheat oven to 350 F. Grease two baking sheets lightly. Have eggs at room temperature.
Place water, margarine, and salt in a saucepan and bring to broil. Remove from range and cool for 3 minutes. Stir in flour and mix well. Return to heat and cook, stirring constantly, until mixture forms a ball and leaves sides of pan--about 1 minute. Remove from range and cool for 5 minutes. Add eggs to mixture, one at a time, beating hard for approximately 1 minute after each addition. Fill pastry bag with batter and pipe small rounds (the size of marbles) 1 inch apart onto baking sheets. (Or you can drop by half teaspoons onto baking sheets.) Bake until lightly browned--about 25 minutes. Remove from oven and cool on wire racks.
In a saucepan, heat honey until it comes to rolling boil. Boil for 5 minutes, being careful not to let it boil over. Dip puffs, approximately 12 at a time, into honey and roll around to coat evenly. Remove with slotted spoon onto a plate. Continue until all puffs are dipped. Wet hands with cold water and stick puffs together forming wreath rings, pyramids, or dome shapes. Decorate with toasted pine nuts, candied orange peel, and cake-decorating sprinkles.