In the last article, we spoke about the tradition of Santa Lucia, but this is a custom you will find only in certain parts of northern Italy, Emilia included. That is because, depending on the historical influence recieved through the ages, every region has its own perculiarities; “posto che vai, usanze che trovi” is a popular saying in Italy, which means that wherever you go, you will find different habits.
Another of these differing habits is the concept of Christmas Eve (la vigilia), which, in many parts of the country, including ours, is more important than Christmas day itself. The evening meal traditionally consists of a fish dinner; meat was considered a luxury in the old ages, so it was forbidden to consume any as a sign of respect and humility towards the Saviour who was about to make his entrance into the world. Ironically, as time passed by, the original significance of this fish meal got lost along the way, and nowadays the “humble dinner” has become an extravagant and expensive event, thanks to the current prices of fish!
For worshippers, Christmas Eve is similar to a wake which leads right up to the birth of Christ, and the midnight mass is attended by millions all over Italy. It is the time to give the finishing touches to the nativity scene – a custom embraced by the whole country – which reigns proudly at the foot of christmas trees, or on window sills in many houses. The “Presepe”, as it is called here, may be traditional, featuring Mary, Joseph and child, the wise men and all the typical barn animals enveloped in straw and moss. But in recent times, you can come across some very unusual characters you would not expect to find in a nativity scene; tv or sports personalities, politicians, actors, singers…..in Naples many artisans are specialized in crafting figures, often drawing inspiration from the latest gossip or scandals – it could be argued that these figures have no place in a nativity scene, and this is undoubtedly true, but apparently they are in high demand!
On a more serious note, it’s interesting to know that the term “presepe” derives from the Latin word “Praesaepe”, and means “trough”, or, as we are accustomed to hearing in christmas carols – “manger” (“mangiare” = to eat, and “mangiatoia”= trough).
Christmas Day is generally a quiet family affair, quality time spent together, and if a lavish meal took place the evening before, lunch will most likely consist of leftovers! Otherwise a typical meal around our area includes “anolini” – little circular pasta packets with a meat-based filling – cooked in a good home-made broth, roasts of various kinds, but most of all, we need to spend a word on the traditional desserts.
Torrone (nougat) is still handmade in many cake parlours around here, and some families still make their own, following bisnonna (great grandmother) Maria’s jealously- guarded recipe. It is made in copper pots, carefully and patiently stirred over white-hot ash – never fire – on antique cast-iron stoves. In the old days, the long evenings spent making torrone were a good excuse to get the whole family, friends or even next-door neighbours all together over a few bottles of wine and a good laugh and chat. This is because the procedure is very lengthy, and towards the end of cooking time, the mixture becomes very stiff indeed, and requires strong arms to continue mixing!
The traditional Spongata is a kind of pie with a filling of mixed nuts, sultanas, orange and lemon peel, a sweet/ peppered sauce, liqueur……and whatever the family recipe demands! Here again, once upon a time, housewives would make a batch of 12 to 15 in one go because spongata can be preserved for a long time, and since the many tins required were passed around from house to house, the women would take the opportunity to help each other out, and make a gossipy afternoon out of it! There was so much more spirit of collaboration back then, something which sadly seems to have gone out of fashion.
But maybe the most famous cakes are panettone and pandoro, exported all over the world. They are the subject of a comical dispute here, since apparently Italy is divided between the panettone lovers and the pandoro ones! But whatever side they are on, there is one thing you can be sure of – no self-respecting Italian family will end the Christmas meal without at least a slice of one or the other….and probably in many cases – both!
Did we ever mention that Italians love eating?!! More to come…..