We went to a mall this week, less than one week before Christmas, and I stopped in my tracks. As we were pulling into a front row parking spot and entered the mall, it was so peaceful. There was a twenty-minute window when we were the only people in H&M besides the employees!
Of the 59 million people that live in Italy, 50 million of them are Catholic. Our children study religion in their Tuscan public school and they sing carols and talk of the story of Christmas, coloring pictures of nativities, and Babbo Natale or Father Christmas. Although commercialism around Christmas is on the rise in Italy, there is no doubt about the real reason for Christmas and it takes center stage. A close second to the birth of Jesus is the food prepared in his honor.
Italians take their food very seriously and Christmas is a time to showcase that connection by lavishly indulging family in as many culinary delights and specialties as a family can afford. It is a time where generations of recipes adorn the table and every dish has meaning.
Seafood is very popular on Christmas Eve as part of the Roman Catholic tradition of abstaining from meat on Fridays and certain holidays. It is meant to be a lean, “fasting” type meal, and a time to prepare for the Christmas day feast. The dishes vary slightly from generation to generation but most recipes are memorized by the hands that prepare them and very little changes. Christmas day is a feast of abundance and courses of meat, pasta, and dessert, accompanied by wine flow to the family table all day.
A saying we have heard more than once in Italy is “Christmas with family, Easter with whomever you like” or “Natale con i tuoi, Pasqua con chi vuoi.” Christmas is tranquil and festive without being chaotic. There is excited anticipation in the air and children have the same palatable hope that surprises will arrive for them, but it is very centered around the intimacy of food and family, and the shared beliefs in a Catholic country. It feels like a completely different way to celebrate and though I feel nostalgic for the hearth hung stockings of my childhood, I am grateful to have this time to experience the difference.