How Italian Americans keep old-world Christmas traditions

By Jane Fusco

In a state where one in five claim Italian ancestry, R.I. holds the distinction of having the highest population of Italian Americans per capita in the country, according to the most recent American Community Survey estimate. According to the National Italian American Foundation, 19% of Rhode Islanders identify themselves as having Italian American heritage.

Most Italian-Americans are forever faithful to the traditions of their homeland, especially at Christmas time. Though decorations and sales start appearing in stores before Halloween, our Italian ancestors started observing the Christmas season on Dec. 8, with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, followed by the Feast of Santa Lucia on Dec. 13, who brings gifts for the children, until the arrival of La Befana, the good witch who delivers candy and presents on January 6, the eve of the Epiphany. Legend has it that the old Befana was too busy cleaning the house to help the Wise Men find the baby Jesus. Now the aged wanderer flies around on her broomstick looking for the Christ child on the eve of Epiphany. La Befana is thought to sweep the floor with her broom before she leaves, which some believe is symbolic of her sweeping out their troubles of the year.

When it comes to exchanging gifts, a visit from the jolly old elf at midnight on Dec. 24 is still the highlight of the season. Some families still refer to the benefactor as Babbo Natale or Father Christmas.

The Christmas season usually begins with baking mountains of cookies, because, after all, Italians are all about cookies. There are usually plenty of other cakes and breads to fill the dessert table, but the cookies always take center stage, and are at the ready throughout the holiday season.

Many of the recipes are regional, having been carried over from all parts of Italy. Some of the more popular ones include frosted ricotta biscuits adorned with colored sprinkle; struffoli, fried dough balls in a honey syrup; biscotti (twice baked) slices; knot-shaped anginetti cookies with icing; Sicilian cuccidati, cookies with a fig paste; and pignoli pine nut cookies, among so many others. Panettone, a sweet bread with dried fruit that originated in Northern Italy also makes its annual appearance, as does the torrone, a toffee and nut-filled nougat.

Holiday decorations always include the presepe, or nativity, and is a key element of the season. The presepe is traditionally put out at the start of the season on Dec. 8, without the figure of the baby Jesus, who isn’t placed into the crib or manager until Dec. 24. Other decorations include food as centerpieces for Christmas feasts, and the ceppo or Yule Log that is burned throughout the season.

On Christmas Eve, it is common for dinner to be meatless.” La Vigilia” (the vigil) with the Feast of the Seven Fishes, remains a significant part of the holiday. This ancient tradition stems from the Roman Catholic practice of abstaining from meat on the eve of certain holidays. The number seven is also rooted in Catholicism; where there are seven sacraments, seven days of creation, and seven deadly sins.

The La Vigilia meal typically includes baccala (salted dried cod fish), capitone (eel), calamari (squid), scungili (conch meat) and vongole (clams). To satisfy the palate of the more Americanized members of the family, shrimp, crab or lobster, may be added. And don’t forget the roasted castagne (chestnuts)!

While most children write letters to Santa with their wish lists, children in Italy write letters to their parents, telling them how much they love them. The letters are wrapped and placed near the father’s plate at Christmas Eve dinner and read throughout the meal.

After this feast, there might be a card game or two, or just some friendly conversation as the time to attend “la Santa Messa,” or midnight Mass, approaches.

Christmas Day is all about the joy of “la famiglia” or the family, where more feasting – this time with meat and pasta – takes place, along with visits to extended family members and friends, and keeping the traditions alive.

Now that’s an Italian Christmas!

BUON NATALE & FELICE ANNO NUOVO. (Merry Christmas and Happy New Year).