You’re sweating away in the kitchen trying to fit half a supermarket worth of food into your oven to roast, the same Christmas song is being played for the hundredth time on the radio, now that Santa has delivered the presents the children think they’re licence to rompere le balle (be very irritating) and there are already several little bits of glitter stuck to your face from the decorations. Though Christmas is far from perfect in Italy, they’ve developed some stress-reducing traditions that we could all take a lesson from:
1.Christmas Decorations are for CHRISTMAS
Those shops that have already stocked shelves with mountains of baubles and lashings of tinsel before they’ve sold off the Halloween masks, the incessant irritating sound of Jingle Bells playing from November, those flashing lights of the neighbour that turn your house into a disco for two months – these tiresome inevitabilities are avoided in Italy by the (mostly followed) tradition of resisting decorating until the 8th December. This is the Immaculate Conception of the Madonna, and a day off work, and signals the time to put up Christmas trees in the squares, string up the flashing lights and open the first of the delightful Christmas markets.
2.Bin the Turkey
Most of us will admit we cook turkey for Christmas due to tradition rather than for its renowned great taste. But Italians don’t mess around with squeezing giant birds into ovens and feasting on kilos of dry meat. Instead they opt for fish. Christmas Eve is the Feast of the Seven Fishes and, as the name suggests, Italians serve up several courses of various fish and sea food. Sometimes they even eat sea food lasagne to keep things light. Similarly if having a family meal on Christmas Day as well they tend to eat fish or pasta in brodo (broth) and roast lamb or cotechino (a large sausage).
3.Escape to the Restaurant
The unlucky family member who has accepted the challenge of cooking Christmas dinner undoubtably has an unnecessarily stressful day filled with meat skewers and chopping carrots. In Italy the cenone (big dinner) often takes place in a restaurant instead, so all the family can relax and get drunk and the children can throw food without the parents having to clear it up.
4.Decorations without the Carbon Footprint
There has been a sweeping craze in Britain for all things ‘locally’ sourced and made, for ‘natural’ products, and for the hand-made. In Christmas decorations it’s all about foraging and making them yourself, or buying something rustic looking in a market and pretending you made it. In Italy hand-made has been the tradition for centuries and it’s much more sophisticated than a few branches strung together with red ribbon. Originating in Naples in the 11th century, Italians make a miniature nativity scene called a presepe. In Naples these can be incredibly elaborate with hundreds of figures, animals, several houses, furniture and mountainous backdrops all hand-crafted. Via San Gregorio Armeno is the home of the presepe and you can find many shops and permanent mostre (exhibitions) of presepe that are constructed over years. Now you can even buy figurines of famous people such as Papa Francesco or Michael Jackson to sneak into the stable.
5.Presepe Vivente – Live Nativity
Many towns also have a live nativity with actors performing the Christmas story, live animals and locals exhibiting traditional crafts such as turning wood with a lathe or leather craft. They are scattered throughout the town so visitors follow a candle-lit route stopping at each stall or scene. The ancient cave city of Matera has a magical Presepe Vivente which you can read more about here.
Let’s be honest, saying Santa is watching to check if you’re naughty or nice isn’t much of a threat. That cheery, rotund bearded man who looks suspiciously like your Dad hasn’t the heart to deny children presents at Christmas. But Italian parents have worked out a more effective system: replace Santa with a terrifying ugly witch called Befana who, seeing as she has to work twice a year for both Halloween and Christmas, has no qualms in crushing children’s hopes. She visits the night before Epiphany, the 6th of January, and delivers presents or sweets to good children and coal to the bad.
The origin of Befana is considered by some to be from the Bible: she was an old lady to whom the Wise Men asked directions. She wanted to follow the Kings but got lost and has been flying around looking for baby Jesus ever since. Historians believe the character of Befana may have been around in Neolitic times, or has Celtic origins. Whatever her beginnings, parents exploit the tradition to its full extent, such as one friend of mine who makes the children kiss the cheek of warty wrinkled Befana before they get their present.
7.Bagpipers in Italy?
The zampognari are travelling mountain pipers and musicians from the regions of Abruzzo, Molise, Calabria and Sicily. They were originally shepherds who, at Christmas, came down from the mountains to celebrate with their families. Now they come to the cities in traditional dress with their pipes to give festive cheer to all. Now that’s a good alternative to Mariah Carey.