12 Dec “It is starting to feel a lot like Christmas”
I got one of those Facebook “On this day Memory Thingamajigs” the other morning. It was dated 17th of November 2011 and I had posted: “I was out walking with my 7 week old son today and an Italian Signora stopped me in the street and cooed “Your son looks exactly like Baby Jesus!” This was amusing on many levels, but mostly because there are still 6 weeks until Xmas!”
Living in a different country around Christmas time can evoke many emotions and feelings, even more so once you have your own children. It is that time of year to be with family and friends and the “coming home for Christmas” media campaigns of the likes of John Lewis and Coca Cola, along with “Love Actually” on the Netflix “Must See Xmas” list, definitely heighten that nostalgia and a bit of homesickness.
As a Mum I really wanted my children to understand and feel part of the Christmases that I had experienced as a child. In a way, I felt that they would be “missing out” otherwise which is downright silly because I am sure that my children are exactly like yours and they never “miss out” on anything, at any juncture of the year 😉
So, after feeling a bit “mopey” one year about not going home to the UK for Christmas with the children I just decided to go all guns blazing and fully embrace the local Christmas traditions here. The result is a mix of some of my Anglo Christmas traditions and some new ones we have adopted or created along the way as a family whilst living here in Northern Italy.
On the night before December 13th excitement is off the radar amongst most children in Lombardy. They are eagerly awaiting the arrival of Santa Lucia to bring them gifts provided they have been well behaved all year, otherwise it’s a piece of coal instead! Santa Lucia, celebrated here in Lombardy, other parts of Northern Italy and in Sicily, is the Patron Saint of the Blind and literally Lucia means “the one to bring light.” In our area Santa Lucia is the traditional gift bearer at Christmas time and a more important figure over Father Christmas for families. Children usually receive their main Christmas presents for Santa Lucia and maybe a small gift on Christmas Day. Before going to bed children will prepare refreshments for Lucia and will leave a bucket of water for her donkey and some hay or polenta flour (note: not baking flour!). Mummy made this mistake one year and the result was pretty messy when the flour got tread into the floor under the excited stampede of present opening in the morning! The 13th is a day off school here locally for the children and I basically treat it as another Christmas Day for us now. The children write their letters in advance asking la Santa what they would like as gifts. Well, there are two letters now, one for Santa Lucia and another for Father Christmas. Black Friday helps in this area, both Lucia and the Big Fella in Red agree!
In the nearby town of Bergamo there is the Santa Lucia Church where the tradition remains that the children deliver their Santa Lucia letter to the tomb there. Most of the local town halls organise for a Santa Lucia to arrive with her donkey in the local piazza on the evening of December 12th, ringing her bell and with sweets and small gifts to hand out to the children. In the Trento area where Father Christmas is celebrated more than Santa Lucia, there is another lovely tradition whereby the children attach their Father Xmas letters to balloons and let them go in the local squares on organised events closer to Xmas.
There is still a simplicity and authenticity about Christmas time in Italy which I do enjoy and I hope it continues that way, even though inevitably it is becoming more commercialised and is starting earlier each year. Christmas Eve midnight mass is still important here and families often have a traditional family meal, il Cenone della Vigilia di Natale, all together on the 24th in the evening before Mass. The main dish traditionally is fish perhaps moreover amongst families from the South. Christmas Day in Italy is, inevitably, all about the food! The menu line-up will typically offer a minimum of 4 courses but it is not unusual to go up to 7 or 8 and literally be at the table eating all day! The main dish will be usually meat or fowl based. But there is no turkey equivalent that almost everyone eats in Italy at Christmas like there is in the UK at Christmas or the USA at Thanksgiving.
The main dish will pretty much depend on each family and their own traditions. Il primo however may typically be “cappelletti in brodo di cappone” which is a hearty, winter warmer of chicken broth with handmade pasta. My sister-in-law sourced the cappelletti from Bolgona last year and they were the business! In our area, here near Brescia it is typical to have brodo with ravioli o casconcelli bresciani as an alternative. Panettone and Pandoro are still the King and Queen of Italian Christmas dolci. Panettone originates from Milan and Pandoro from nearby Verona. There are many stories about the invention and evolution of Panettone.
Each region also has its own particular Christmas delicacies. Zelten from Trentino is the local Christmas cake made from pine nuts, almonds, hazelnuts, raisin, candied orange and lemon and a hefty dose of grappa, or rum or brandy! La Gubana is the typical Xmas cake in Friuli, made again from sweet leavened dough with a filling of dried fruits and nuts. My family in Gorizia makes this one so I can personally say it is really gooood!
The Christmas markets here in the North of Italy set up in the centri storici and piazze from the end of November/beginning of December offering local food produce and handcrafts, as well as grappe and vin brulé to keep the cold at bay. If you go to Trentino over Christmas I am reliably told that the local Parampampoli is a must flambé liquor to try at Christmas time. One to put hairs on your chest! Live nativity scenes, presepi viventi, are also frequently found all over Italy at Christmas, the more adventurous ones with real animals also actually in the stable! One of the most famous ones here in the North is in Tesero in Val di Fiemme. In fact most families will have a small nativity scene to decorate their homes over Christmas, instead of or as well as, a Christmas tree.
One of Mummy’s Xmas new pastimes these days, post-bambini, is re-arranging the Xmas tree decorations at around 11pm in early December with a Baileys on ice to hand. I love that our kids love decorating the tree as early as December 1st, but their sense of uniformed alignment of the decorations is not quite in line with Mummy’s, or at least Mummy’s slight OCD! I am sure quite a few of you may be nodding here….
In terms of our own family past times Christmas Car Karaoke became established as a firm tradition already a number of years ago. Here is one from 2012! (Audio alert: you may want to turn down your volume in advance!) The other day, around November 15th, my children were already asking for the Xmas CD in the car. I did say we had to wait until December 1st though; even I am not that hardcore in embracing Christmas that early!
On that note or lack of them, I will sign off and I send Season Greetings to you and your family. I hope it is starting to feel a lot like Christmas for you, wherever you may be celebrating this year.
Emma Cuthbertson is founder and owner of La Piccola Agency, a boutique Marketing and PR agency based in Northern Italy.