The Christmas holidays are the biggest family holiday in Italy. Like Easter, they are part of the canonical Christian holidays with many rituals and culinary traditions. Christian holidays have ancient roots in pagan times and these traditions have been incorporated into Christianity.
It is tradition to spend either la Vigilia (Christmas Eve) or il Giorno di Natale (Christmas day) with family. Many Italians also follow the tradition of attending La Messa di Mezzanotte, (Midnight mass) and mangiando di magro (literally “eating lean”) which involves eating fish instead of meat on the Vigilia.
Vigilia is traditionally a Vigil and involves some sort of fasting – although this has changed over the centuries. Many regional cuisines have traditional Christmas dishes, especially i dolci di Natale, typical Christmas cakes and sweets: Il Panettone (literally “big bread loaf” – a brioche-like fruit cake with raisins and candied fruit) and il Pandoro (similar but without the fruit, the name “golden bread” aptly describes its warm yellow color and buttery taste) are associated with Milano and Verona respectively, but they are widely popular all-over Italy. I ricciarelli (soft almond cookies) and il panforte (very dense candied fruit and nut cake) originally of Siena are also popular all over Italy.
I Ricciarelli (soft almond cookies)
1 c. blanched (skinless) almonds
1 3/4 c. almond paste
1 egg white
1 tsp. almond extract
1/2 tsp. baking powder
2 tbsp. orange zest (optional)
confectioner’s sugar for dusting
Grind the almonds in a food processor or coffee grinder until you have a fine powder. Transfer the almonds to a mixing bowl and mix in the almond paste. Slowly add the egg white, and mix until completely blended into a firm dough (you can also use an electric mixer, but be sure to use the slowest setting). Mix in the almond extract and baking powder, along with the optional orange zest, and blend well.
Take a heaping tablespoon of the dough and roll into balls. Dust the balls with confectioner’s sugar, then roll the balls into logs about the size of your thumb. Place on parchment-lined baking sheets about an inch apart, and press down. Before baking, let the logs stand on the baking sheets at room temperature for an hour or more.
After the logs have stood for a while, pre-heat oven to 300F and bake on middle rack until the ricciarelli are a very light brown, about 20-25 minutes, depending on the oven. Don’t overbrown the cookies; they should be soft, not crisp!
While the ricciarelli are still warm, dust them with the confectioner’s sugar and let cool on wire racks. Store your ricciarelli in an airtight container to keep them fresh. Recipe yields about 2 dozen ricciarelli.
There are other Italian holiday traditions that don’t revolve around just food. Characteristically Italian is the tradition of Il Presepe (The Crib) and nativity scene with statuettes that can vary in size from small to live-sized and even to live people (a tradition in Napoli). Many towns have Presepi on display in public places. Although taken over by Christian iconography, the Presepe goes back to the pagan tradition of honoring defunct family ancestors, as in the Roman cult of I lari e i penati (The lares and the penates), thought to protect the home.
Italian Christmas traditions have been influenced by northern Europe with the adoption of the Christmas tree l’albero di Natale, and Babbo Natale or Father Christmas who brings I regali di Natale (Christmas presents) to children. A typically Italian tradition is La Festa dell’Epifania (Epiphany) on January 6, more popularly associated with the name of the friendly witch La Befana who brings candy. December 26, is Santo Stefano (St. Stephen, Boxing day). Many stores are closed for both days and as always on holidays in Italy one has to plan shopping for food in advance of the shop closures.
La Festa di San Silvestro or Festa di capodanno, New Year’s Eve, is still a big event with many booking dinners in restaurants for the Cenone di Capodanno or alternatively gathering with friends for more low-key dinners. Fireworks or i Botti (literally “the bangs”) are also popular. This end of year celebration also has pagan roots marking the end of the harvest year, and rituals of doing away with the old and welcoming the new, including the tradition of scaring away the evil spirits by making loud noises.
(I ricciarelli photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)