Italian Christmas: Buon Natale!

Today I’m sharing a link to Walks of Italy’s blog, a great piece on Christmas traditions in Italy. Walks of Italy offers some interesting touring options, and custom walks for those with specific interests. I hope you enjoy this post, and wish you all a blessed holiday!

Photo by Gino il Pio via Wikimedia Commons.

Photo by Gino il Pio via Wikimedia Commons.


Italian Bagpipers: the Zampognari

A vintage post card image of Zampognari.

Who knew Italy had it’s own version of the bagpipes, and a Christmas tradition surrounding them? I’m referring you today to another article in the British magazine “Italy” online, which explains the history of the zampognari, shepherds who came down from the mountains to spend Christmas with their families, and stopped at shrines and nativity scenes to play their carols.

The instrument itself is strange looking, with the air bag sometimes shaped alarmingly like the lamb or sheep it was probably made from. And like Scottish bagpipe music, a little goes a long way for most people.

Are you ready for a visit from the zampognari? Play the video:

Food for the feasts of Italy

Celebrating Italy: the tastes and traditions of Italy revealed through its feasts, festivals and sumptuous foods (English and Italian Edition)

I began looking for food topics to post about for today, and ended up buying this book. I wanted something about food traditions surrounding the Feast of Santa Lucia, December 13. In our family, our oldest daughter, starting when she was nine or ten, dressed in white with a crown of candles (battery operated!) and delivered freshly baked Orange Danish rolls to us in bed. We usually thought of the celebration through the lens of my husband’s Scandinavian roots. But she was, after all, a Sicilian girl.

I’m looking forward to cooking my way through Carol Field’s beautiful book of Italian festivals and their foods, and you are sure to hear more about them as I go along!

To allow you time for your Christmas preparations, I’m keeping this short. Enjoy the journey through Advent, to Christmas.

Book Review: Strega Nona’s Gift

The most recent in Tomie dePaola’s long series of Strega Nona books, Strega Nona’s Gift (Nancy Paulsen Books, 2011) describes the many festivals connected to Christmas celebration in Italy. In her Calabrian village, Strega Nona cooks her way through the season, cheering up the townspeople when they need it with her own happy magic. Big Anthony wants to help, but can’t seem to stay out of trouble. By the end of the celebration, though, he sets thing right.

This beautiful picture book is a great way to share Italian Christmas traditions with young children. The colorful and varied illustrations are in classic dePaola style, as charming to adults as to children.

Tomie dePaola has written and/or illustrated nearly 250 books during a career of more than 40 years. He is likely the best known Italian-American writer for children, and in 2011 was honored with the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award for his contribution to children’s literature. Strega Nona: An Old Tale Retold, published in 1975, won the Caldecott Award in 1976, and several other Strega Nona books round out the story of the old lady who uses her magic to take away warts, give people good dreams, and many other kindnesses.

So early bird Christmas shoppers, this is your heads-up. If you know young children you want to share Italian traditions with, this book may be the perfect opportunity.

Book Excerpt: On the Spine of Italy

I knew my research in Italy would take me to Abruzzo, and Harry Clifton’s book “On the Spine of Italy: A Year in the Abruzzi” (Macmillan, 1999) fell into my hands at the right moment, to give me a taste of the region I was so eager to know better.

Clifton is an Irish poet. He and his wife went to a village in Abruzzo to spend a summer writing. In the end, they stayed a full year, and this book chronicles their experience of village life. I enjoyed reading it, and it stoked my interest in the region, although my visit of a few weeks would not compare to a year-long stay. I believe the book is now out of print, but it is available used from online booksellers.

Clifton describes the village at Christmas time:

“The village, in its small way, was preparing for Christmas. The shop had introduced a freezer, full of packaged vegetables, hamburgers, french fries, and fish fingers, to internationalize the local cuisine. It had a glass display case, containing cheeses and cold cuts of meat, clinically administered by the women in starched white. The co-operativa, as it stood now, would have done justice to a hospital.

“They had introduced a small stand of Christmas gifts and confectionery, a smaller and far poorer version of the extravaganzas we had witnessed in Perugia. There were bottles of Spumante and Amaro, the bitter digestivo favoured in the Abruzzo. There were sundry mechanical toys, times to autodestruct a week after they had been bought. And there was a big assortment of giftwrapped panettones, the soft fruity cakes filled with jam or chocolate that symbolize the Christmas season in Italy. We bought some for Silvio’s family, as a fence-mending gesture.

“In the bar, the men played cards obsessively. the lights were on until two in the morning, as they engaged in gigantic poker sessions. As it was Christmas, they were betting heavily and playing for real stakes. We knew villagers who had been literally ruined, dispossessed of their property and the shirts off their backs, by such sessions. The late night shouting and roaring across the road had plenty of reality behind it. But anything, especially in winter, was better than boredom, and cards were the one thing in the lives of the village men that lifted the burden of empty time off their backs.

“A week before Christmas, a truck arrived from the commune of Poggio, with a string of coloured lights. In the course of one dark afternoon, they were draped over the solitary pine in the piazza. In the evening, switched on, it became our communal Christmas tree. Meanwhile, in the church, Gegeto had constructed a huge elaborate crib out of moss and mountain rocks–a miniature landscape threaded with electric lights, through which wandered shepherds, wise kings and animals, in the direction of the Holy Family. Until Christmas night, this massive construction went unwitnessed by almost everyone in the village. After Christmas, it was almost immediately dismantled. It was a labour of love. The lights on the pine tree, which were the work of the state, were still there the following May.”

I enjoyed Clifton’s book, which doesn’t identify the specific village, but includes the highs and lows of village life in rural southern Italy.

Merry Christmas to all my readers!

Christmas year-round: Nativities of Naples

Nativity scenes are part of the Christmas tradition for many of us, and they range from gilt-trimmed masterpieces to naked trolls. In the historic center of Naples, Via San Gregorio Armeno is home to workshops and storefronts selling an array of elaborate creches, or presepi in Italian.

The narrow pedestrian street is Nativity Central in Italy, carrying on a tradition established some four hundred years ago, in the Baroque era. From individual figurines and furnishings to elaborate full-village scenes, from finely crafted and expensive pieces to the very inexpensive–the array is fascinating. They go far beyond the typical scene of the holy family with wise men and shepherds. These scenes include the whole town–the innkeeper, the greengrocer, the mayor, homemakers and housekeepers, in lively scenes where you can imagine them sharing the story they’ve heard from the shepherds. “Did you hear about the baby? Did you hear about the angels? Can you believe it? Let’s go take a look!”

Christmas is a year-round affair on Via San Gregorio Armeno, so enjoy it whenever your visit to Naples comes along. At the end of the street is San Lorenzo Maggiore, a historic church that contains a museum focusing on the historic center of Naples. This neighborhood oozes history from every seam, so plan to spend some time exploring.

A selection of nativity scene characters for sale.

And whether you call it a creche, crib, presepi, or nativity, browse the workshops and enjoy the tradition of Christmas, celebrating the birth of Christ in a thousand variations on the theme.

(Remember those naked trolls I mentioned? Check out Nativity Scenes Gone Horribly Awry at a blog called “List of the Day”.)