Like many countries Italy has a strong food tradition when it comes to holidays, or in the Italian language "i giorni festivi." In the region of my home, Tuscany, the holidays surrounding Christmas or "Natale" are especially attached to the Catholic tradition as well as to the dining room table. The fabled three, four and up to seven course meal is a reality that one must, not so grudgingly, endure. Let's take a look at some of these culinary traditions.
Il Vigilia - the Vigil
On the eve of the 24th, when one is awaiting or "in vigil" for the arrival of the Christ child, the common practice is to eat a meat-free meal, which most often presents itself with a meal focused around fish.* This lighter option is to honour religious guidelines and also a sensible choice considering that 1) many will attend a midnight mass at their local church and a heavy meal often leads to sleepiness, and 2) the following two days will be days of feasting.
Natale - Christmas
In partaking in a variety of large, festive events I have found they most commonly take place around midday to coincide with lunch or pranzo, and Christmas follows suit. As family gathers, lighter and bubblier wines are opened and glasses are offered in accompaniment with a cornucopia of appetisers or antipasti. Quiche or torta salata, crostini toasted bread, which is spread with fegato or liver patè, and a variety of stuffed pastries is most consistently offered. When it is time to sit down at the table you will be served a Primo Piatto, which is classically a pasta or rice based dish. On Christmas day brodo con tortellini, a prosciutto stuffed pasta in bone broth is a popular tradition in our region of Tuscany. On many occasions I have enjoyed eggplant parmesan or lasagna in addition to the brodo and tortellini and therein made the fatal mistake of asking for a second helping for at this early point in the meal, there is nothing else on the table giving you an indication that there is more to come, perhaps other than a meat knife or dessert spoon for the keen observer. After everyone has finished this first course and taken some time to digest, the second course, Il Secondo and side dishes contorni will be served. The second main dish is a roast. Rabbit or various types of fowl could be served, but with larger gatherings you often find a lamb or a pork roast. The most common side dish or contorno is roasted potatoes. Salad or other vegetables are often an afterthought and often it is I, the American who brings along the only salad or vegetable dish to any gathering. After all have leisurely finished this course, dessert is next on the family table and is no less impressive.
Panetone, a large, round sweet bread is likely to adorn all tables Christmas day. Other favorites could include tiramisu or macedonia or fruit salad, or a variety of sweet tortes or purchased puff pastries. By the time the meal is complete the sun is low on the horizon and an after dinner drink sends you off to the couch or on a wintery walk or to visit with neighbors, but not before the children have convinced all to gather to watch them open their presents by the adorned tree. There are no stockings on this day. As you will see, these will come 2 weeks later.
Santo Stefano - Saint Stephen's Day
This is an observed holiday in Italy when the Christmas experience is celebrated all over again with other family members. In a culture where very few move away from their family homes, this is a chance for the other side of the family to enjoy special time together.
Capodanno - New Year's Eve
I have most often been by the Tuscan coast at this time of year where the New Year's Cenone or Big Dinner is focused around lavish seafood dishes, however, all over Tuscany and in the north you wouldn't want to miss eating a dish of lentils which are said to bring wealth and abundance in the new year. Away from the coast zampone or cotechino is a dish of boiled and spiced pork foot served as a meat roll and is most popular.
Epifania - Epiphany
Though there is no particular dish or food tradition surrounding this holiday, it marks the end of the Christmastime festivities. This is the day the wise men came bearing gifts to the Christ child and this is the day that children all over Italy will awake to find stockings stuffed with candies and pieces of coal (usually a sweet, edible coal), gifts for their good and bad deeds of the year. It is the ugly witch named Befana that visits homes and drops these gifts for the kids.
* "meat" by traditional Italians is considered red meat. Fish, fowl and rabbit do not fall into this category.
RECIPE TORTELLINI IN BRODO