Christmas in Italy



The Christmas season in Italy starts eight days before Christmas, on December 17th, and ends on January 6th, the date of “the Epiphany”, the day when the Three Wise Men presented gifts to Baby Jesus. Although the concept of Santa Claus (Babbo Natale) and giving gifts on Christmas Day has started to creep into modern culture, the traditional day for exchanging gifts in Italy is The Epiphany.

Instead of Santa, it is The Befana (a witch-like woman who rides a broom) that delivers presents on the eve of The Epiphany. Legend has it that The Befana was visited by the Three Wise Men looking for food and shelter on their way to visit the Baby Jesus. She turned them away, but later regretted it and went off to join them. Unfortunately she got lost, so every year she continues her search, leaving gifts for good boys and girls along the way.

Christmas Eve Dinner

A Christmas Eve tradition that is common throughout Italy is La Cena di Vigilia, a large multi-course fish-based banquet, also known as The Feast of Seven Fishes. The all-fish dinner was originally intended as a pre-Christmas gesture of abstinence and sacrifice (giving up meat), but grew in scale over the years to be the centerpiece of the holiday celebration.

Many families serve more than the traditional seven varieties of fish (said to represent the seven sacraments of the Roman Catholic church) and serve upwards of twelve. Typically, each course consists of several different dishes served family-style and in large platters for everyone to share.

A traditional Christmas Eve Menu may look like this:

Antipasti (appetizers)

  • Clams Oreganato - Baked clams stuffed with seasoned breadcrumbs
  • Fried Calamari - Squid fried in a light flour batter, typically served with marinara or fra diavolo sauce for dipping
  • Insalata Frutta di Mare - Cold seafood salad
  • Mussels Posillipo - Mussels cooked in a light tomato broth

Primi (first courses)

Secondi (entrees)

  • Zuppa di Pesce - Fish stew
  • Red Snapper Livornesa - Red snapper in a light tomato sauce with onion, olives and capers
  • Baccala and Potato Stew - Salt cod stewed with potatoes, tomato, olives and capers

Contorni (side dishes)

  • Broccoli Rabe Sautéed with Oil and Garlic
  • Fried Zucchini

Typical Italian Christmas Treats

  • Cannoli - Pastry shells stuffed with a mixture of ricotta cheese, sugar and chocolate bits or pistachios
  • Struffoli - Little fried dough balls coated in honey and decorated with sprinkles
  • Pannetone - Italian sweet bread with candied fruits and nuts