I’ve just returned from almost two weeks away visiting family up north, and now that Thanksgiving is over my thoughts are on Christmas. Of all the holidays we celebrate each year, Christmas is my favorite one, and I love to decorate my house from top to bottom, spoil my family with gifts, and bake up a storm. Though I normally reserve most of my baking for our Umbrian farmhouse guests, at Christmas I bake at least a dozen types of cookies that I share with family and friends, some family favorite sweet breads, and many other holiday treats. I love having my family home for the holidays, and since we all love to cook, my kitchen is always the busiest room in the house. When my family is together, meals are often an important topic of conversation, and we are usually planning our next meal before our last one has been completed, particularly over the holidays when we tend to indulge a little more than usual. We celebrate Christmas with many traditional Italian foods that my husband enjoyed growing up in a family that blended both Calabrian and Roman regional specialties, and I never grow tired of preparing these special dishes. For my family, Christmas just wouldn’t be the same without these family favorites and I am sure many of you have traditional holiday recipes as well.
An Italian Christmas revolves around faith, family and an abundance of food. Throughout the holiday season, food plays an integral part in the celebration. Women spend days, sometimes weeks preparing their family’s favorite recipes that have often been handed down for generations. Every region, city, and country town have their own ritual foods for the Christmas season that are prepared in great quantity to be shared with family and friends.
Although the season may start at different times depending on the region, December 24th and 25th are the most important days, often involving a two-day feast. Traditionally due to religious beliefs, the Christmas Eve meal is a plentiful fish feast, with course after course being offered. A typical Christmas Eve meal might include an antipasto seafood salad, or an offering of seafood and vegetable antipasti, followed by a pasta dish or two such as spaghetti with tuna, fettuccine with smoked salmon, or perhaps a risotto with mixed seafood. Next come the main entrees, such as baccala’ (a dried salted cod dish ), the traditional eel, a light baked salmon, or a wonderful stuffed trout. A myriad of side dishes are added to complement these dishes such as rosemary roasted potatoes and other seasonal vegetables. A salad will follow to cleanse the palette, then the desserts are offered. Christmas desserts can be a selection of Italian cookies, filled with figs or nuts, buttery fruit tarts, or fried and sugared sweets like zeppole, or struffoli. Usually, as well as a vast selection of sweets, a selection of fruits, both dried and fresh are offered with a assortment of nuts.
On Christmas Day, the feast continues, and is often started with a stuffed pasta, such as tortellini or cappelletti, most often served in a meat broth. The next course may be a stuffed capon, or a goose, in northern Italy while in the south, the seafood feast is continued. The meal is completed with a number of complementary side dishes such as artichokes cooked in white wine, or a gratin of vegetables roasted in the oven. Desserts will be offered once again, particularly the famous Christmas sweet breads, panettone in particular. It might be stuffed with ice cream, served with a chocolate sauce or served plain with a sweet wine. Other Christmas sweets which have bread in their name-pane speziato, panforte, or pandoro, are not really breads at all, but more typical of a sweet bread filled with spices, nuts and dried fruits. These breads are often offered as gifts throughout the holiday season, and it wasn’t unusual for our family to have almost a dozen panettone in our cupboards when the season was over.
An Italian Christmas is one of abundance. No matter what the regional differences may be, there is always lots of food, love and family. Whole families come together to celebrate with traditions that have been handed down for generations, to share old traditions, and to begin new ones.
Wishing you a wonderful holiday season and a happy New Year, filled with love, peace, and prosperity!
Updated by Deborah Mele 2015