Christmas Time Traditions

The Christmas season is a period rich in traditions. Below are some of the most common.

The "Ceppo" or "Ciocco"

The Christian religion absorbed many pagan rites. The nature cults often connected to the tree (a symbol of life) connected to fertility and this leads to the magical fir-tree under which gifts will be left. But the Christmas tree tradition has reached Italy only in very recent decades, while for centuries the "tree" was the piece of hardwood that was to burn slowly, if possible as long as New Year's Day.

The ritual is connected to the solstice rite of the "new sun" - in the longest nights the "ceppo" burnt to summon the return of heat and light on earth. Pagan rights also used fire as a form of purification of the supposed sins of mankind that had brought the long cold night. The tradition of burning in the fireplace a huge "ceppo" or “ciocco”, usually olive or oakwood, would protect the home from lightning and the ashes spread on the fields would make them fertile.

Between 17 and 24 December in Rome there was the "Saturnalia" festival, in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture, and there were banquets, gift giving and peace. Then in the year 274 AD emperor Aurelianus officially established the festival called "Dies Natalis Solis Invicti" - birthday of the unconquered Sun - to be celebrated around the 25 December, soon after the winter solstice - and the tradition began of burning for twelve days an oakwood piece in the fireplace.

Since the festival, though pagan, was highly popular also among the Christians, during the 4th century AD the Popes decided to celebrated on the same day the Dies Natalis Domini. The tradition of lighting fires still remains in the colorful, flashing decorations of present-day Christmas.


The Mistletoe

This plant was considered magical since it seemed to spring from the sky and its berries are always grouped in three and contain a liquid similar to the male "seed" and take nine months to develop, which made it a symbol of female fertility.

The mistletoe, sacred among the druids, was picked with a special gold knife by the Druids on the occasion of the Celtic New Year's Day, on the first of November. Since gold and the sickle were masculine symbols, the mistletoe came to signify the union of the male and female principles. This rite continued in the Christian tradition as the "kissing under the mistletoe" custom clearly shows. Also, hanging the mistletoe on the door would bring life and prosperity to the family.


Eating figs

A Calabrese legend tells that Mary, Joseph and Jesus in their flight to Egypt took refuge under a fig-tree that enveloped them in its large leaves, hiding them from Herod's soldiers. The following morning Mary blessed the tree and gave it the privilege of bearing fruits twice a year, in June and at the end of the summer. The figs of the latter harvest are then dried in the sun and eaten in the Christmas season to celebrate the birth of Christ.


Laurel leaves are present in many areas of Italy in the Christmas time, both hung as good omen and decoration on courses. The tradition seems to come from ancient Rome, where on the 1st of January the god Ianus was celebrated and it was customary to exchange gifts of figs and dates accompanied by laurel leaves.

The laurel was picked in a small wood near Rome along the Sacred Road, consecrated to goddess Strenia, giver of gook luck and happiness. From this derived the word "strenae" to signify the gifts exchanged in this period of the year, from which the Italian "strenna" (=Christmas gift).


The sweet bread cakes

Christmas is the day of family reunion and bread is a great symbol of togetherness.

All the traditional Christmas cakes based on flour preparations enriched with candied fruit, eggs, butter, sultanas, pepper, come straight from the ancient Romans, from the Saturnalia period and later from the "Dies Natalis Solis Invicti".

As historian Plinius says on that day "flour pancakes were prepared". The traditional sweet bread took also the significance of the presence of Christ in the Eucharistic bread, as a symbol of life, and, from the agricultural folklore, of fertility and abundance. The new-born solstice sun would help the growth of the wheat seed under the earth in the following months, to have a rich harvest in the summer.


The Panpepato

Typical of central Italy, is a preparation with honey, walnuts and almonds, sultanas, chocolate and nutmeg. The celebrated Panforte of Siena is also extremely rich in ingredients. Other ancient special breads on the Christmas table are in Venice the "Fugassa", in Emilia Romagna the "spongata", in Latium the "pane giallo". The "Pandoro" comes from Venice; it's the old "Nadalin" eaten in the rich Venice of the Renaissance. It became the "gold bread" because they used to cover the cake with very thin foils of sequin gold.

The Panettone

But the most typical Italian bread of the Christmas period is the famous "Panettone". Its ancestor is a cake from Florence called "pan co Santi" dated 1300. During the XV century the "panaton de daneda" (of Christmas) appears and then the "pan Grand". At the end of the 19th century bakers from Switzerland and Austria introduced the use of the raising powder into Italy and the panettone became the cake we know.

A legend tells that the Panettone was invented in Milan, in the year 1386. On Christmas Eve, the cook of the powerful Sforza family had burnt the Christmas cake and was in despair. His young helper, called Toni, took some bread dough ready to be baked, mixed it with candied fruit, sugar, sultanas, cider, some spices and put it into the oven, obtaining a superb result and saving the cook, who decided to name the new-born cake "pan de Toni" (bread of Toni) which then changed with time into "panettone".