Language Matters December 2009: Happy Holidays


In Western countries Christmas is probably considered to be the most important holiday of the year. Although Christmas is originally a Christian holiday, it is a chance for families all over the world to come together, eat together, and exchange gifts as a sign of affection. During Christmas time people start thinking about New Year’s resolutions, inspired by the lights and decorations that adorn streets and houses.

Today we are going to discover how Christmas is celebrated in Italy, a Southern European country that is famous all around the world for its ancient history and culture, art, and delicious food. To non-Italians Italy evokes images of sunny piazzas, beautiful historical monuments and buildings, and enormous steaming pizzas. Visiting Italy during Christmas can be an exciting experience, because the holiday seasons are the best periods to observe traditions and customs of this old country, whose origins date back to the 9th century BC.

Contributed by Luisa Begani. Thanks for reading.


Family, Traditions, and Art

Like in other Western countries, Christmas is a sacred holiday for Italians and is regarded as the time par excellence during which they celebrate family values and stay with beloved ones. A famous Italian saying recites, “Natale con chi i tuoi, Pasqua con chi vuoi”, which means “Christmas with your family, Easter with whoever you want“.

The Christmas season in Italy lasts for three weeks, starting eight days before Christmas, a period known as Novena. This is the period when families start the big preparation for the Christmas Eve dinner. Italians like to decorate their houses with various ornaments – lights, angels, stars – but what cannot be missed is the Christmas tree or the crib (called presepe). Most families do both, but it is the crib that constitutes a real Italian tradition. In particular, Naples is famous to be the city that turned presepe into art. In the 18th century, presepe in Naples became an elaborate and dramatic scene, which represented not just the nativity scene but also the life in Naples at that time. Moreover, almost every Italian city organizes a living presepe in its major square, where adults, children, and animals play the roles of the Holy Family.
Christmas season is also characterized by many art craft shows – the perfect places to buy Christmas gifts. One of the most famous is the market on the feast day of Santa Lucia, a symbol of light and hope to all, on December 13th.


A Passion for Food

Christmas is the holiday in which the Italian cult for food is revealed in its entire splendor. The Christmas Eve dinner can last four hours or more and it usually consists of around six or seven courses. In order: appetizers; the first course – obviously pasta; two different kinds of second course – accompanied by salads and other sides; fruit and desserts; coffee and liquors, which are called ammazzacaffe (coffee killers).
Italian culture is strongly based on food — which is one of the most important conversation topics – Italians love talking about food while eating. In particular older people, who have experienced war and hunger, and who value food and food traditions. So during the Christmas dinner the stereotypical Italian grandmother would keep telling you, ” Mangia, mangia! Sei sciupato!” (“Eat, eat! You look wasted!“), even if you are visibly overweight.


The Christmas Eve Dinner

Italian cuisine varies so much from region to region that it is difficult to identify a typical Christmas dinner. Traditionally the Christmas Eve dinner should be meat-free, even though nowadays not everyone respects this tradition. Anyway, for that reason fish is the principal ingredient of Christmas dinner dishes.

Although every region, city, and even family has its own traditions, some food – especially desserts – is representative of Christmas and can be found on every Italian table on December 24th. Two the most famous Christmas cakes, both invented in Northern Italy, are: panettone and pandoro. “Do you prefer panettone or pandoro?” is the question that splits Italy into two opposite factions, panettone-lovers and pandoro-lovers.
Panettone is a dome-shaped sweet bread invented in the region of Lombardia, enriched by candied fruit and zest. Pandoro, which comes from the city of Verona, is a pine-tree shaped cake, topped with powdered sugar, so that it looks like a mountain or a star covered by snow. Usually Italian families buy so many panettone and pandoro cakes that they will be eaten for breakfast until the beginning of February!
Well, we should also mention torrone, another delicious Christmas specialty. It is a rectangular nougat confection, typically made of honey, sugar, and egg white, with toasted almonds or other nuts. It could be hard or soft, again depending on the region.
The courses are served slowly, so that the adults can chat between any of them, while the kids play around waiting impatiently for the gift-giving – everyone enjoying the magical atmosphere of Christmas. After dinner it is common to play some board games, looking forward to midnight. The most famous one is tombola, a sort of raffle similar to bingo. The nice aspect of organizing tombola for your family is choosing funny prizes to make everyone laugh.

When finally a midnight comes, the family cheers. “Tanti Auguri!“, “Buon Natale!“, is what you hear in Italian house at midnight on December 24th. Also, everyone toasts to Merry Christmas with a glass of good spumante — lightly sparkling wine. Later on, some families go to church, while others stay at home or go for a digestive walk!


Are You Ready to Leave?

Now you know everything you need to know about Christmas in Italy and you are probably eager to taste all these specialties we talked about. Italy is a nice country to visit any time of the year, but Christmas is the best period to observe and deepen the most ancient Italian traditions.

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Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!