Italian traditions: Christmas in Italy
- WTI Magazine #98 Dec 17, 2017
In addition to being the most important and representative Christmas tradition, the crib is also the oldest: the first nativity scene was made by St. Francis and his friars on the night of 24th and 25th December 1223 in the mountains of Greccio, near Rieti in the Lazio region. The first crib is actually a mass exceptionally celebrated in a cave rather than in a church. Since the sacred dramas were forbidden in the Church, when the holy night arrived, a crib filled with straw was placed inside the cave and a donkey and an ox were placed next to it.
From the surrounding of Greccio arrived peasants and some friars who lit the night with torches. Francis, who was not a priest, preached for the people gathered together. The scene was later represented by Giotto: this is the thirteenth of the twenty-eight scenes of the cycle of frescoes in the Stories of St. Francis in the Upper Basilica of Assisi between 1290 and 1295.
The elements of the Nativity are present in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew. Luke (Ev. 2:7) tells of the humble birth of Jesus "in a manger because there was no place for them"; of the announcement given to the shepherds; of the wizards who came from the East following the star to adore the Child that the wonders of heaven already announce King. The ox and the donkey, added by Origen, interpreter of the prophecies of Abacuc and Isaiah, become symbols of the Jewish people and the pagans. The Wise Men are three: this number, fixed by St. Leo the Great, allows the double interpretation of them as representatives of the three ages of man (youth, maturity and old age) or the three races into which humanity is divided. The angels are examples of superior creatures, while pastors represent the humanity to be redeemed. Finally Mary and Joseph, represented from the thirteenth century in an attitude of worship, precisely to emphasize the royalty of the infant. The first nativity scene with all-round characters dates back to 1283, and was the work of Arnolfo di Cambio, who sculpted eight wooden statuettes representing the characters of the Nativity and the Wise Men. This crib is still located in the Roman Basilica of S. Maria Maggiore.
Since then and until the middle of 1400, artists have been modelling statues of wood or terracotta that are placed in front of a painted backdrop reproducing a landscape that acts as a background to the scene of the Nativity; the crib is exposed inside the churches during the Christmas period. Cradle of such artistic activity was Tuscany but soon the crib spread in the kingdom of Naples by Charles III of Bourbon and in the rest of the Italian states. In the seventeenth and eighteenth century, Neapolitan artists gave the sacred representation a naturalistic imprint by inserting the Nativity in the Campania landscape reconstructed in glimpses of life that see characters of the nobility, the bourgeoisie and the people represented in their daily occupations or in moments of leisure: in taverns banqueting or engaged in dancing and serenade.
Another novelty is the transformation of the statues into wooden mannequins with arts in iron threads, to give the impression of movement, dressed with period clothes and equipped with the instruments of recreation or work typical of the trades exercised and all reproduced with precision even in the smallest details. In this period there are also the Ligurian artists - in Genoa in particular - and the Sicilian ones who, in general, are inspired by both technique and scenic realism, by the Neapolitan tradition with some exceptions such as the use of wax in Palermo and Siracusa. Also in the 18th century, the mechanical or movement crib spread. The popular diffusion is fully realized in the 19th century when every family builds a nativity scene in the house during Christmas, reproducing the Nativity according to traditional canons with materials - plaster or terracotta statuettes and more - supplied by a flourishing craftsmanship. This century is characterized by the crib art of Puglia, especially in Lecce, for the innovative use of papier-mâché, polychrome or fire-treated, draped on a skeleton of wire and tow.
The tradition of the Christmas tree is very recent, if compared to that of the Nativity scene. The tradition of planting and decorating a tree in the Christmas period dates back to the Germanic peoples. In fact, towards the 11th century, in Northern Europe, the use of major representations or mysteries re-proposing episodes from the Bible was widespread. A much in demand performance was linked to the Genesis chapter about creation. In order to symbolize the tree of the knowledge of the good and evil of the garden of Eden, given the region and the season, a fir tree was used on which fruit was hung. From that ancient tradition, we gradually arrived at the Christmas tree of our times, whose first reliable documentation dates back to 1512 in Alsace. The Christmas fir also gradually took on a new meaning: it came to symbolize the figure of Jesus, the Savior who defeated the darkness of sins: for this reason it began to be adorned with lights.
Santa Claus, the Befana, the exchange of gifts, mutual wishes, kisses under the mistletoe, the use of decorations, the game of tombola are some of the other traditions of the Italian Christmas. But Christmas is mainly the moment when families and friends gather together, especially at the table. Each region has its own culinary characteristics, and the only common to all regional recipes is the presence of fish: on the evening of the eve the eel is present on many Italian tables, in particular in Abruzzo, Lazio, Marche and Campania.
In Calabria, the meal begins with fried artichokes and "zeppole", then dinner is based on stockfish. The Christmas lunch should consist of thirteen courses, according to tradition.
Even in Basilicata the dinner is made up of thirteen fish dishes. First of all, on Apulian tables we find the traditional scrapers, a particular paste of durum wheat.
In Campania, everything is based on fish, from spaghetti to clams to traditional eel. And then the traditional dessert, the "struffoli".
In Emilia Romagna you will eat tortellini for dinner, without meat, followed by a second fish while strictly in broth for the Christmas lunch, followed by cotechino and sausages.
In the Marche region the main dish is roast turkey for lunch, while dinner is abundant: macaroni with stockfish and the classic eel.
In Apulia you will find homemade spaghettini according to tradition, seasoned with fish sauce, followed by eel. Even here the dinner must be composed of thirteen courses.
In Trentino Alto Adige on the tables you will find typical regional dishes, soups and cheese in the evening and polenta, roast meats, sausages and sauerkraut for lunch.
In Lazio, as in other regions, the main course will be eel, while capon or hen will be served at lunch.
Sicilians generally prefer pasta based on fish, usually with anchovies, but the desserts are the real main dish: cannoli, pignolata and nougat.
In Veneto, on the other hand, tradition has it that dinner ends with the "sbrisolona", a typical Venetian almond dessert, and a glass of grappa.
Of course you cannot forget the typical Milanese Christmas dessert, Panettone and Pandoro.
Panettone is made from a dough leavened with water, flour, butter, eggs or egg yolks, to which candied fruit, orange and cedar peel in equal parts and raisins are added. It was born in Milan at the time of Ludovico il Moro, and still today it is produced according to the recipe of 500 years ago.
Pandoro is a typical dessert from Verona. According to some people, the origins of the recipe are to be found in Austria, where the so-called "Vienna Bread" was produced, probably derived, in turn, from the French "brioche". According to others, however, it could derive from the "golden bread" that was served on the tables of the richest Venetians. Its birth dates back to 1800, as an evolution of the "Nadalin", a Veronese sweet. On October 14, 1894 Domenico Melegatti, founder of the confectionery industry of the same name, filed a soft and characteristically shaped eight-pointed star-shaped cake at the patent office, the work of the artist Angelo Dall'Oca Bianca, an impressionist painter. Ingredients include: flour, sugar, eggs, butter, cocoa butter and yeast.