Celebrating Christmas in Italy

The Christmas season here in Italy is in full swing. It was kicked off officially by the national holiday of the Immacolata on December 8. That’s the day when the switch is thrown on public tree lightings and ornate illuminations festooning streets all over the country, bringing with them smiles and joy and signalling to all that you have no hope of maintaining any semblance of a diet for the next month.

Our first year here, we found out the hard way that December 8 is a national holiday. We went out expecting business as usual only to find all the grocery stores—and every other store—shuttered. Not knowing what was amuck, we went to the neighbourhood bar to inquire, only to find his door locked up, too.

Fearing calamity had struck, I wandered into the piazza where I inquired of the first elderly gentleman I happened upon. Surprised at so ignorant a question, he mumbled, “L’Immacolata,” as if that should explain everything and scurried off, probably wanting to put some distance between himself and the obvious heathen standing before him in case lightening should reach down for me. While Italy has constitutional separation of church and state, many of its public holidays are inexorably tied to religious observations.

There is a full month of festivities between L’Immacolata and the winding down of the season, with plenty of prosecco and panettone being proffered in between. In Italy, it’s always about the food and company. There are casual meet-ups for drinks, dressy parties and obscene amounts of food, like only Italian grandmothers know how to cook.

Yesterday, Christmas Eve, was the biggest feast of the year and involved fish in every form. While you may have heard talk of the “feast of the seven fishes,” here in the motherland the meal has as many as 11 or 13 dishes, depending on the family and the cook. By tradition, the number of courses has to be odd-numbered. The massive meal lasts right up until midnight Mass. Those who can manage to stay awake after all that food and merriment and alcohol, that is. We are wimps and headed for bed knowing we were off to church this morning.

Like everywhere, Christmas Day here is a joy for children and another excuse for us grown-ups to gorge. This time it’s meat instead of fish, usually lamb, at least in our region—Basilicata—and another four-hour meal in company. For feasts like these, it’s about being together, cooking together, eating together, talking, arguing and laughing together.

Local friends never fail to invite us, which makes us feel incredibly honoured and humbled and included. We no longer have inhibitions like our first couple of years here; we join in the animated—usually loud—discussions, we poke fun and tease and help in kitchen like famiglia. Gift are exchanged; not great piles of them, just a few for each person.

But wait, we’re not done yet! After Christmas comes Santo Stefano, another public holiday on December 26. Polenta is the traditional meal in many places on that day. Then there’s San Silvestro (New Year’s Eve) with… surprise… a feast! And then, Capodanno (New Year’s Day) and so it goes right on through Epiphany, when an old lady known as La Befana brings presents or coal to the children of Italia. (And another big meal, of course.)

Between the Immacolata and Epifania there are so many holidays involving celebrations with church bells peeling, people gathering and food to be enjoyed, that you begin to lose count. It’s almost a month before the festivities give way to business as usual, by which time you’re relieved to go back to a normal routine—and diet—again. While it can be hard to get much work done here in December, it’s easy to feel the Christmas spirit, regardless of your religious (or non-religious) sentiments, with the grand swags of lights, the contagious bubbly atmosphere and the welcoming, inclusive hospitality of friends.

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