In Italy, Christmas is a time to get the whole family together and lay out an enormous banquet of food – meals can last hours over the festive period, with each delectable course accompanied by a bevy of side dishes. With all the family gathered together, it’s a time to tell jokes, swap stories and have fun. In that respect how we celebrate Christmas is not too dissimilar to how it’s done in the UK – but of course we also have our own, distinctively Italian customs. The Christmas tree, for example, while popular in the UK, is only a relatively late addition to our traditions in Italy, having been introduced during the Second World War – a more traditional and popular custom is the nativity scene, or presepe, with many houses and churches each having their own.
But of course we also have our own special food traditions – after all, in Italy we take our food seriously, and when you’re getting the whole family together, it’s no time to drop the ball on culinary affairs. Italian Christmas food is less turkey and Brussels sprouts, more seafood, delicious fresh Italian vegetables, and tasty traditional sweets. Here’s how we celebrate Christmas in Italy.
Although the holiday season officially starts on the 8th of December in Italy, and that’s when we start decorating our homes, things really get going on Christmas Eve. The whole family comes together for a large meal that can go on for hours. Fish and seafood are at the core of this meal, and there’s a lot of it, with swordfish, tuna, salted cod or baccala, and even octopus salad being frequent favourites. In some areas, including Sicily, it’s traditional to have seven fish dishes, although in others it can go as high as thirteen, for Christ and the twelve apostles at the Last Supper.
Although there’s a lot of food to go around, Christmas Eve tends to be a lighter meal than on Christmas Day – there’s no meat, but there is meat-free antipasti and fresh, local vegetables to complement the seafood. Christmas Eve is considered more important in Italy than in the UK, but so far as food is concerned, it’s not there to overshadow Christmas Day.
Lunch on Christmas Day is another long meal, this time with meat, and a lot of it. The meal starts off with antipasti – dry cured meats and salami, as well as Italian cheeses, olives, and fresh artichokes. Different areas have different traditions, though – in Tuscany, for example, it’s customary to have crostini neri, liver pate on bread, to begin the meal.
Then comes the pasta course – again, it depends where in Italy you are how this is prepared. Southern and Central Italy favours a baked pasta dish, while Northern Italy prefers stuffed pastas like ravioli, as well as lasagne Bolognese.
Next comes the meat course, the centrepiece of the meal – but unlike in the UK, turkey isn’t traditional at Italian Christmas Day lunches. Roasted veal, sausages or braised beef are favoured instead, as is chicken – though in some areas, the chicken may be replaced as a treat by a thrush or a dove.
In Sicily, we round off the meal with the traditional buccellati, also known as cucciddati or cucidati in our local dialect, which are one of Sicily’s most famous local pastries. Traditionally home-made, they vary from household to household, with each having their own recipes and customs. But buccellati are typically a thin pastry wrapped around a filling of figs, dried fruits and nuts, including almonds and pistachios. Shape can very much vary, however, some long and thin, like logs, others shaped large and round, or even shaped like rings. Buccellati are a family treat, and are a pleasant and enjoyable way to wrap up the Christmas Day meal.
At Diforti, we love our food at any time of the year, but Christmas is a special time – and a great time for us to share the local food that we love with you. Whether you’re looking for an Italian food gift, or just doing an Italian food shop for yourself, our carefully curated hampers can introduce a bit of festive Italian flavour into your Christmas. Whether it’s serving up a hamper of delicious antipasti before you get started on the rest of your meal, or trying your hand at baking some buccellati, there’s so many ways that Italian cuisine can add some flavour to your Christmas – so delight your guests by giving it a go!