Each country has its own unique traditions at Christmas that are passed down from generation to generation, each adding their own elements to the celebration that become traditions creating a kind of family living history. Christmas celebrations in Italy last for weeks and are celebrated with family, church and unique family traditions.
The Italian Christmas Legend of La Befana
On the morning of January 6, children in Italy leap from their beds with excitement and anticipation that La Befana has been there. Each year, the legend of La Befana is celebrated on the anniversary of the day the three Wise Men reached their destination; the manger of Jesus Christ in a stable, and the Christmas season comes to an end. There are a few different versions of the legend of La Befana but the outcome of the celebration is the same.
The gentler version of the legend speaks of La Befana (the gift giver) as an elderly apron clad Italian woman busily using a broom to clean her house when there is a knock at her door. The three Wise Men in search of a new born baby knocked to ask direction. The old woman was not able to help the Wise Men who asked her to join them on their quest. She declined the invitation so she could continue her housework. After the Wise Men left, she began to feel she made the wrong decision and should have joined them. She ran after them still wearing her apron and holding her broom. After hours of searching, she was unable to find the Wise Men in search of the Christ child. Overcome by regret, she stopped each child she saw to give them a special treat in the hope one of the children would be the Christ child.
January 6 is the beginning of the Epiphany season, an important time in the Catholic Church, which lasts until the Sunday before Ash Wednesday. Every year on the eve of the Epiphany, she travels in search of the Christ Child and stops at every child’s home to leave something in the child’s stocking. Good children receive sweet treats in their stockings but bad children receive a black lump of coal.
The Feast of the Seven Fishes
Tradition declares the Feast of the Seven Fishes originated in southern Italy as a celebration on the eve of Christ’s birth, after a day of restrictive fasting.
Many, but not all, Italian families celebrate La Vigilia (Christmas Eve) with the Feast of the Seven Fishes. Historically, the Feast of the Seven Fishes was a break from the Roman Catholic traditions regarding abstinence marked by removing meat or dairy food from the diet for a specific amount of time.
Why the number of fish is seven is disputed to this day. Some claim it marks the Seven Sins, others claim it represents the seven Catholic sacraments, or the Seven Hills of Rome, or even the seven days of the week.
The meal consists of traditional dishes passed down from generation to generation. Salads made with baccala (salted cod), shrimp, or calamari (squid) are the first course. Served next is a pasta dish made with sauce and a variety of seafood like scallops, lobster, fried smelts, or a variety of fish. Next the baccala stew is served, and then the traditional eel. Midnight is marked by serving spicy sausage which ends the meat and dairy fasting and welcomes Christmas Day.
The beauty of the Feast of Seven Fishes is the individual family traditions that create this celebration. Each generation adds their unique dishes and discards unpopular ones. Throughout the generations of family, this feast is shaped and moulded by family members until each dish served has a story of family to tell and the table becomes surrounded by past and present family members. The Feast of Seven Fishes becomes the living history of each family in celebration.
So if you fancy soaking up some of the amazing Italian traditions, flights to Italy from the UK can take less than two hours making it a