Food Culture and Tradition

Food, People and Culture Resources

Italian Special Occasions


Almost all of the people of Italy profess the Roman Catholic faith, and according to many observers, the Church comes second only to the family in daily importance. From early infancy, through education and social services, festivities and special occasions, the Church plays a meaningful and important role. Yet, like Italian foods, personalities, and lifestyles, there is great variation throughout the country and generalities are difficult. Each village – indeed, each family – have special festive traditions. Together with the specialty foods, most festive occasions begin with devotional prayers and end with singing, dancing, wine-drinking, and feasting.

Natale – Christmas – is one of Italy’s most important holidays. In many regions the festivities begin with the setting up of miniature nativity scenes in the homes. Carolers visit from house to house, and the zampognari are the shepherds who descend into cities and villages playing ancient instruments such as flutes and ciarmeddi (bagpipes).

Traditionally a 24-hour fast precedes Christmas Day, which generally means that no meats or meat products are eaten. Eels for Christmas Eve are a great favorite, but in many areas tuna, clams, or squid with pasta form the main dish or may be served as an accompaniment to capitone (charcoal-grilled eels and bay leaves). Some may prefer frito misto di verdure, an array of precooked batter-fried vegetables. The pre-Christmas tradition of meatless meals is climaxed with a display of treasured regional desserts, cookies, and sweets, many made only at Christmastime, such as cullurelli, the sweet pastries from Calabria-Lucania made by deep-frying small balls of dough then serving hot with sugar: the traditional Neapolitan sweet called struffoli alla napolitana, made with tiny drops of fried dough bound in a rich honey syrup and garnished with tiny colored candies; the special Christmas treat prepared in Abruzzo-Molise called calciuni di molise, actually a type of sweet ravioli filled with a puree of chestnut and chocolate then fried and served with cinnamon sugar; and Bologna’s traditional Christmas cake, certosina, a rich dark honey cake with bitter chocolate, fruits and nuts and the aroma of anise seeds and cinnamon. The Ferrara region of Emilio-Romagna boasts a rich chocolaty yeast cake delicately scented with lemon and almonds. It is eaten from before Christmas to Twelfth Night and is called pampepato di cioccolato.

Christmas trees are not a usual part of Italian festivities, but the treasured displays of the nativity scene are. Also typical almost throughout Italy is the rich egg-yolk yeast bread dotted with chopped candied fruits and slivered nuts called panettone which everyone enjoys with cappuccino or espresso coffee throughout the holiday. Christmas is a time for family and friends and the day begins with coffee and panettone and often cups of zabaglione, the warm fluffy dessert made from whipped eggs and Marsala. Dinner on Christmas Day, is often a feast of the best the family can afford, sometimes following the traditional seven-course menu of homemade family specialties of antipastos, pastas, vegetable dishes, fish or seafood, with a traditional main course of stuffed roasted capons to he followed by brandied fruits, nuts, cookies, cakes, and fine liqueurs.

New Year’s follows many local and familial traditions too. For Sicilians, on Notte di Capo d’Anno, the doors are opened to sweep out the old year and the windows are opened to let in the new year. In Southern Italy, the new year is welcomed by the clatter of clay pots tossed from windows. Hopefully, there are no serious injuries, just good fun. Plates of cut-up herring are enjoyed as a symbol of luck, while lentils, a symbol of health and wealth and also the traditional staple of the poor, are consumed. Mistletoe is yet another symbol of luck. Money gifts (strenna) for the children and flowers sent for friends and relatives add excitement to the day The traditional dinner is stuffed pig’s legs and lentils, zampone di modena.

In some areas, children receive gifts at Christmas from the legendary kana, the witch who travels on her broom in search of the Holy Child after hearing about the birth of Christ from the zampognari (shepherds). In other homes, children and family exchange gifts, and still others give only money gifts at New Year’s.

There are many other special days on the calendar but these vary from region to region, as do the customs and foods. December 13 is traditionally the Feast of Santa Lucia when cuccia, a mixture of wheat and chickpeas (garbanzos), is eaten for each meal of the day. The Feast of St. Agatha is bright with parades and everyone enjoys nibbling on snacks of roasted seeds, nuts, beans, and cookies made with almonds and pistachios. February 15 is the special day for celebrating almond blossoms; sugar-coated almonds play an important role in many occasions such as weddings, anniversaries, graduations, and baptisms, while chopped or ground almonds and nougat and marzipan confections sweeten and flavor many festive dessert plates.

Throughout Italy, March 19 is celebrated as the Feast of St. Joseph (San Guiseppe), the patron saint of hearth and home. In consideration for the poor, meatless feast tables are set up with fish and seafood, vegetable and cheese dishes and breads and fresh fruits. Most homes share this meatless day by serving appetizers of fruits, vegetables, and olives; for example, orange slices, fennel, and black olives. The main meal of the day may follow the appetizer with a soup then fish and vegetable dishes. Again each area and family often prepares its own St. Joseph Day specialty dish. Bigne de San Giuseppe, deep-fried beignets dusted with sugar join the list of traditional sweets with fresh oranges and sweet yeast breads. Sicilians prepare sfinge, crisp crullers with cheese filling.

Pasqua (Easter) once again ushers in the familiar pattern of devotional prayers and gatherings of family and friends to feast together. Roasted whole suckling lambs, spring salads, eggs, roasted artichokes, and fugazza di pasqua, an egg-rich yeast bread lightly touched with orange, vanilla, almond, or lemon replace maritozzi quaresmali, the light fruity buns eaten throughout Lent.

Other festivals often retain more regional than national importance. For example, Rome celebrates Midsummer Night or St. John’s Eve with family gatherings where the traditional feast includes garlic-simmered snails garnished with fresh mint and tomato. May 9 and 10 are the special Sicilian dates for eating marzipan fruits (made from ground almond paste) and cuscusu, a dish patterned after the North African couscous but made with coarsely ground semolina and fish. Many areas of Italy celebrate July’s summer weather with day- or week-long festivities that include stewed snails and suckling roast pigs (porchetta). In Sicily the first two weeks of August are known as Ferragosto, the Feast of the Madonna; streets are brightened with religious floats and parades, and everywhere vendors sell grilled sausages and peppers, pizzas and polpi (octopus). And in case anyone still feels hungry, there are always seeds, candies, or nuts, or delicious ice cream for cooling refreshment.

On November 2, most Italians celebrate All Souls’ Day, a time of feasting and a warm remembrance of dead loved ones. No one seems to know why anymore, but beans have long been symbolic of death and the souls of the departed, so it is not surprising that fave dolci (sweet almond cookies shaped like fava beans) are eaten especially on All Souls’ Day.

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