Christmas in Italy – Why We Love Natale in Le Marche
We love spending Christmas in Italy, particularly Le Marche, where we live. Practically every town and city is adorned with lights, decorations and large Christmas trees gracing the piazza’s. Even the tiniest towns are decorated and softly lit with candles, white street lights and scenes of the nativity, bringing a biblical feel to their narrow cobbled streets and medieval stone houses. Much of the tradition of Christmas in Italy revolves around the church, religious festivals, families and feasting.
Christmas in Italy
Beginning with La Vigilia (the vigil) on 24th December and finishing with L’Epifania (the Epiphany) on 6th January, the holiday season encompasses Natale (Christmas) on the 25th, San Stefano (St Stephens Day) on the 26th, San Silvestro on New Year’s Eve and Capodanno on New year’s Day.
Italian Festive Food
In Le Marche, La Vigilia on 24th December has an equal importance to Christmas, and is celebrated with a huge feast of at least seven courses that usually includes fish. A typical Vigilia dinner begins with antipasti of different fish dishes such as smoked salmon, lumache (snails in a tomato sauce), seafood and marinated anchovies.
The first course, primo piatto, consists of pasta or risotto with a fish sauce. Fish is also included in the secondo (second dish), either baked trout, langoustines, stoccafisso (stockfish) or baccalá (dried salt-cured cod), eels, red mullet, or fried whitebait. The traditional contorno (side dish) can consist of greens such as cicoria, sauteed in oil and garlic, or seasonal vegetables such as roast fennel or globe artichokes. Desserts such as torrone (nougat), panettone, pandoro, and exotic fruits plus a glass of vino cotto completes the feast.
Most local people go to mass on Christmas Eve at midnight to pray, sing carols and celebrate the birth of Jesus. This heart warming night is concluded with socialising, hugging and kissing as friends and neighbours exchange greetings and toast each other in the main piazza of the church with a local wine or a warming punch, mulled wine or vin brule.
A Christmas lunch feast of anti pasti cold meats, cheeses and pickled vegetables give way to a first course of ‘in brodo‘ (in broth) such as meat cappelletti or wild mushroom filled tortellini. Food for the next dish is ‘al forno‘ (baked), such as vincisgrassi, the famous Le Marche lasagna made with chicken livers or cannelloni, while the main course consists of a range of meats cooked al forno or ‘alla brace‘ (grilled) on an open fire or fried. Le Marche’s local tradition is to use a great variety of meat – leg of lamb, stinco (pork), and chicken, with stuffed olives Ascolana style. The main course is usually accompanied by side plates of roast potatoes and other seasonal vegetables or winter salad leaves. Desserts can include torrone, panettone or pandoro.
Babbo Natale & La Befana
On Christmas Day, Christmas gifts are opened, delivered by Babbo Natale (Father Christmas) while the traditional Christmas stocking is given to children on the day of La Befana, the epiphany (6th of January), where it is believed La Befana (the witch) delivers gifts to children who have been good all year. As with many countries, Italy’s version of Saint Nicholas is a familiar character in red who rides reindeers and receives letters from children, delivering gifts on Christmas Eve. La Befana though, is uniquely Italian.
Originating as a tale of folklore in Rome, the story of La Befana had become widespread across the country by the 20th century. This character, portrayed as an old woman wearing a black shawl and riding a broomstick, climbs down chimneys on the Eve of the Epiphany (5th January), delivering gifts for children, while those who have been naughty will find a lump of coal in their stockings. Anyone who stays awake to catch a glimpse of La Befana will receive a wallop from her broomstick!
In towns across Le Marche, there are various festivals to celebrate Le Befana, including a host of witches in Fermo & Urbania who climb down the tower in the main piazza.
The 26th of December is a public holiday in Italy, and encompasses another great feast (the feast of Stephen, as we sing in the carol ‘Good King Wenceslas’). Believed to be the first Christian martyr, San Stefano is celebrated in numerous countries who enjoy a day off on the day after Christmas.
New Years Eve & New Years Day (Capodanno)
New Years celebrations in Le Marche consist of firework displays, large gatherings in the main piazza’s with live music, dancing and plenty of food. New Years Eve is not a public holiday, but New Year’s Day is.
Christmas Markets (Mercatino Natalizio)
There are a huge amount of Christmas markets to visit in Le Marche over the holidays, our favourites include the larger ones in Ascoli Piceno and Macerata. Selling Christmas decorations, local foods such as cheeses and meats, vino cotto (mulled wine) and beautiful gifts, there are an array of markets to explore. Some are combined with ice skating rinks, music and entertainment, the Christmas season is a feast for the senses in Le Marche.
Live nativity scenes transform the cobbled streets of Le Marche’s medieval towns into Biblical Bethlehem during Christmas in Italy. Shepherds, soldiers, donkeys, sheep and men and women in old costumes bring these scenes to life and transport us back to the birth of Jesus. Food is served along with warming vino cotto, and grand models depicting biblical events are carefully constructed for everyone to come out and view. Our town, Force, has a presepe that is beautifully constructed in the vaults beneath the main church, where visitors from all over Le Marche gather to tour it. The workmanship that goes into these presepe’s is outstanding.