I have really enjoyed the festive season in Europe. As the days grow shorter and darker and colder, Europe turns on the twinkly lights and the celebrations begin. While Christmas is celebrated on the 25th December and New Year on the first of January, each city has its different customs, characters and foods symbolising the season. In parts of Germany, Advent officially begins on the last Sunday in November, with the lighting of the first of four advent candles. An additional candle is lit each Sunday leading up to the 25th December. In Italy, le festività begins on the 8th December, the Day of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. This is when decorations go up (both on the streets and inside Italian homes) and when the Christmas markets start. I wish the markets went on all through the winter – there is nothing more comforting than stopping off on the way home for a warming cup of vin brulè. The streets are lit up and people are out in the streets having fun.
In Italy, a key element of le festività is il presepio, the nativity scene. These depict not only the biblical characters from the Christmas story but entire village scenes including the villagers going about their daily lives. In Catalonia, the nativity includes an additional figure known as El Caganer. Some of these presepi are very elaborate with day-to-night lighting and moving figures. At Epiphany, we saw a living tableau in Piazza Maggiore including parents and baby, an ox, a donkey and a flock of sheep. We were awaiting the arrival of the magi on camels, but somehow managed to miss it.
The traditions around gift giving are different across Italy. We were in Verona on 13th December and were told that it was the feast day of St Lucia. On the eve of the 13th Santa Lucia rides in on a donkey and brings gifts for children. I don’t think it has any relation to Christmas but seems to have got caught up in the season. In other parts of Italy, il bambino cristo brings gifts on the day of the 25th. In Bologna la befana brings the gifts on the eve of Epiphany, 6th January. La befana is an old woman who was too busy when the magi called inviting her to join them on their journey to follow the star in the east. Changing her mind, she eternally searches after them, bringing sweets to all children in case they are the one the magi were seeking. She comes on a broom and apparently not only distributes gifts but sweeps the house, which makes her my preferred Christmas benefactor.
In Europe, the main festive meal is the Christmas Eve dinner. In the Catholic church the meal on the eve of a feast day is usually meatless. This does not mean vegetarian but rather a fish meal. We enjoyed a delicious vegetarian Christmas Eve meal in Brandenburg, not far from Berlin. We had spätzle, red cabbage and a kale salad with raspberry vinaigrette. Followed by bratäpfel and ice cream. In Bologna they have another Christmas meal of tortellini followed by some kind of roast joint, usually pork. We celebrated Italian Christmas before we left for Brandenburg with tortellini and pandoro at home. In Brandenburg we served a nut roast with roasted vegetables, pigs in blankets, sauteed Brussels sprouts and peas. We had Christmas pudding and mince pies.
Different celebratory cakes appear in the shops and most are only available during the festive season. In Sienna they have panforte which is a a spicy, chewy cake of fruit, nuts and honey. Panettone from Milan is also fruity but much larger and bread like. Bologna’s panone is a sweet, dark loaf filled with dried fruit and occasionally chocolate. Torta di riso is a rice pudding style cake also eaten at Christmas in Bologna, along with certosino which is a spicy cake decorated with candied fruit. The candied fruit is something to see. The cake that won my heart is Verona’s pandoro. This is a light golden cake baked in a high star shaped tin and dusted with icing sugar.
Le festività continue with il anno nuovo, but that is another story…