How to celebrate Christmas like the Italians

Post by : The Local


How to celebrate Christmas like the Italians
Milan’s Cathedral. Photo: Giuseppe Cacace/AFP
Christmas in Italy is a magical experience, but there are a few unique traditions you won’t find in other countries. If you’re hoping to have a truly Italian Christmas, make sure to incorporate at least some of the following.

1. Get the dates right

Photo: Pexels

The Italian festive season starts on December 8th with the celebration of the Immaculate Conception, and continues until the Epithany on January 6th, when the Three Wise Men arrived in Bethlehem. The most important date of the celebrations is Christmas Eve.

2. Know your Novena

Picture: Waiting for the Word/Flickr

The nine-day period before Christmas, known as the Novena, is when we remember the journey of the shepherds to the baby Jesus’ manger. In rural areas in particular, children go from house to house dressed as shepherds and performing Christmas songs or poems, often in exchange for money or sweets.

3. Keep an eye out for bagpipers

Photo: Massimilianogalardi/Wikimedia Commons

In southern Italy and Rome, bagpipe-playing shepherds, or zampognari as they are known, perform tunes in piazzas, normally dressed in traditional sheepskin and wool cloaks. The pipers usually travel in pairs down from their mountain homes – it’s quite a spectacle.

4. Prepare the presepe

Photo: nedrichards/Flickr

The tradition of presepi, or Christmas cribs, is widespread in Italy. Most churches, as well as other public areas and many Italian homes, will have at least one nativity scene on display. Styles vary and may depict just the holy family or a whole village, but the baby Jesus is usually added only on Christmas Eve. Sometimes, contemporary characters (such as ex-PM Renzi or Italian footballers) are included too.

In Rome, an annual exhibition displays 100 different cribs from all over the world, including miniscule versions carved into nuts, and all kinds of materials – even pasta.

5. Festive Francis

Pope Francis during last year’s Christmas mass. Photo: AFP

In Rome, crowds gather in St Peter’s Square for the Pope’s evening mass on Christmas Eve, and at noon on Christmas Day, he appears at the basilica’s balcony to give his blessing. He’ll also be the one to add the baby Jesus to the Vatican’s life-size nativity on the 24th.

6. A feast of fish

Photo: Koze/Flickr

Christmas Eve was traditionally a day of fasting before Christmas for Catholics, with festivities starting only after the evening mass. This is still observed in some families, and the evening meal, known as the ‘Feast of Seven Fishes’, is usually based on seafood rather than meat. Clams and oysters are often used as they are seen as luxurious.

7. Religious roots

Castel Sant’Angelo. Photo: Andreas Tille/Wikimedia Commons

Italian Christmas celebrations are still very much based on their religious roots. At midnight on Christmas Eve, churches ring their bells and cannons are fired from Rome’s Castel Sant’Angelo to celebrate the birth of baby Jesus. If you’re interested, there will be plenty of Christmassy services and carol concerts at your local church, and they are beautiful to watch even for the non-religious.

8. The big dinner

Photo: Gaspar Torriero/Flickr

On Christmas Day, the food that makes up the Cenone (literally meaning ‘big dinner’) varies from region to region, but meat is normally back on the menu, often accompanied by pasta. The meal is followed by panettone, a sweet bread loaf originating from Milan, and other desserts filled with nuts, which were historically a symbol of fertility for the coming year.

9. Letters to loved ones

Photo: Sarabbit/Flickr

Christmas in Italy is a family affair, and as well as writing to Father Christmas requesting the latest must-haves, it is traditional for children to write letters to their parents, telling them how much they love them. The letters are usually decorated and tied up beautifully, and are read out after Christmas lunch.

10. Wait for the witch

Photo: ho visto nina volare/Flickr

Although nowadays many children receive presents from Father Christmas on Christmas Eve, a uniquely Italian tradition is that of ‘La Befana’, the old woman who brings gifts on Epiphany Eve. Legend has it the Three Wise Men came to her house and invited her to join their search for Christ. She was too busy with housework so declined, but later changed her mind, and to this day is still searching for the child, leaving presents for any good children she comes across.

Things to know about Truffle hunting

Treasure in the Woods

white truffles

They’re impossible to find without help from a dog. They look like gnarly knobs of dirt but are treasures worth their weight in gold. The treasure is the famed tartufo bianco di San Giovanni d’Asso, the white truffle of the Siena Crete region from the town of San Giovanni d’Asso, just north of Pienza. It was October and we were conducting a culinary tour in Tuscany; what better way to spend a morning than hunting for truffles in the woods!black truffle w risotto

In Tuscany, there are several varieties of truffles, including some that are inedible, but the two most important truffles are the black summer truffle, found in the late spring through the summer, and the white truffle of the Crete Senese, found from early fall till the end of the year.

truffle hunterOur friend and professional truffle hunter, Paolo, lives with his two dogs in the heart of the Siena Crete region where they hunt one of the most prized truffles, the tartufo bianco, or white truffle, of San Giovanni d’Asso. We’ve found the black summer truffle before, with Daniele, of Cinta Senese pig farm fame, and his black and white short haired pointer, Ombra. The forest around Daniele’s house is rich with black truffles and on any given early summer day, Ombra turns up a few. They’re very delicately flavored and neither as highly prized nor as expensive as the autumn black truffle of Umbria. If fact, Tuscans are fond of saying “Ma, sa di niente.” They have no flavor.truffles

But the most important truffle found in Tuscany is the rare and expensive white truffle. Found only in Alba in Piedmont, San Miniato in Tuscany, and San Giovanni d’Asso in the Siena province, the white truffle is the most prized both because of its intense perfume and strong flavor. A few shavings of white truffle on a plate of fresh tagliolini is strong enough to perfume an entire restaurant.  Url:




Pasta to go in Rome’s Testaccio Market

We are crazy lucky to live close to the Testaccio market.

Yes, it is a market in flux – with traditional vendors operating along side more modern ready-to-eat stalls.

Le mani in pasta is both and it straddles this divide exceptionally well.

The stall in Mercato Testaccio sells fresh pasta made by hand using organic flour and high quality eggs from free range chickens.

The pasta, such as ravioli and tonnarelli, is sold based on weight.

You can request a certain number of grams (which according to the 10 commandments of cooking pasta should be about 100g per person) and then take the fresh pasta home to be prepared as you like.

Not to be confused with Le Mani in Pasta restaurant in Trastevere, the Testaccio Market stand located at Box 58 also sells hot pasta, made to order.

Behind the counter is a small kitchen where they create some delicious meals.

This week, the Testaccio Market is open late. Very similar to the market’s open days, this after hours opening will run through 23 December.

Happy to have the mercato open on a Sunday, we wandered over for lunch yesterday.

I walked around, trying to decide what to eat, but I kept coming back to the sign I saw at Le Mani in Pasta:

Cacio, pepe e tartufo.

Oh sweet lord.

It was so good! And I almost didn’t get it!

I have had cacio e pepe on the brain, so I thought I should try something else… but this? This was amazing.

The addition of truffles made it all the more delectable.


Now I am hungry again!

In Testaccio for a short time with no way to take the fresh pasta home? Don’t worry, you can also find dried pasta artigianale to take back and cook later.

However, I highly suggest you stay for lunch and order the cheese-y truffle goodness to eat immediately.

Le Mani in Pasta – Mercato Testaccio
Box 58 Nuovo Mercato di Testaccio
Via Beniamino Franklin, 12/E
Open: Monday – Saturday, 8:30(ish)-14:30