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Christmas in Italy

When Christmas is on its way, Italians prepare for the event. Streets are decorated with red or green carpeting and especially with blinking multi-coloured lights which may represent the Star of the nativity scene, a Christmas tree, or other motifs. The "ceppo" (Yule log) is kept on from Christmas to New Year's Day. As it represents the vitality of fire, its slow consumption can be identified with the "extinction" of the old year and of all the negative elements it has brought with itself. Definately widespread is also the figure of Babbo Natale. Just like Santa Claus, Babbo Natale wears a splendid red suit and a big white beard, lives in Northern countries, travels on a sleigh drawn by reindeers, and in the cheerful Christmas night crosses the sky to bring gifts to children. For some – actually for few - Babbo Natale is replaced by Santa Lucia, who brings gifts to children on December 13. Neither of them will arrive, anyway, if you have not sent him/her a little letter or if you have not behaved! Families typically decorate a Christmas tree and gather around the Nativity scene (the “Presepio”), which has ever since been the true core of Christmas throughout Italy. The tradition of the "Presepio" goes back to 1223. In that year St. Francis of Assisi, with the aim of rendering the events described by the Holy Scriptures more easily understandable, represented for the first time the birth of the Holy Child at Greccio (near Rieti). Throughout the country, one can find "Nativity Scenes" of all possible kinds, displayed in houses, churches, or public gathering places. There are the life-size ones, the monumental ones, and the animated ones. Italy's different traditions and multicultural background find their best expression in the cuisine of this festive period. The ingredients of the “cena della vigilia”, the big supper which takes place on December 24, is varied and usually characterized by delicious but light fish dishes which must leave room for the bigger meal on Christmas Day, the so called “pranzo di Natale”. The latter is a tribute to abundance and joy, celebrated with rich meat dishes and generous cakes which may present considerable differences among the different areas of the country. What all the Italians share, however, is first of all dried fruit, which includes dried figs, figs with almonds, dates, walnuts, almonds, and hazelnuts. Second, some desserts which were once typical of some regions and are now consumed throughout the country: "Panettone" (meaning big bread); "Pandoro" (golden bread); "Panforte" (strong bread); and "Torrone". Panettone is made with a leavened sweet dough and is filled with raisins, currents, and candied fruit. In the dough of the second there is a lot of butter which gives to it its peculiar golden appearance. Both were originally made in the North - "Panettone” in Milan and "Pandoro" in Verona (home of Romeo and Juliet). The legend goes that panettone originated in the sixteenth century, when a baker named Antonio fell in love with a princess and baked a golden, buttery egg bread to win her heart. Over the years the name of the bread evolved into panettone and in the nineteenth century, with the unification of Italy, the bread was embellished with candied red cherries and green citron as a patriotic gesture. From Siena, instead, come "Panforte" and other small oval-shaped sweets called "Ricciarelli". The base of the former is like a communion host: the dough is made of a mixture of gingerbread, honey, candied fruit, nuts, and spices and the surface is covered with a veil of powdered sugar. Ricciarelly, conversely, are made of an almond-based dough and are covered with powdered sugar or chocolate. Last but not least is the "Torrone", a cake made with a lot of sugar, almonds, nuts, pistachios, and honey. New Year's Eve is also celebrated with a big abundant dinner, the so called “cenone” which cannot lack some typical symbols such as lentils, which are supposed to bring money for the year to come; pork, that “scratches” away bad luck; grape and pomegranate, heralding happiness. By the way, if, while uncorking a bottle of champagne as the clock strucks midnight, some champagne spills over, you must moisten your fingers with some of it and wet your nape: it will bring you luck! Once Christmas and New Year's Eve have passed, children wait for the Befana, a sort of witch who brings children sweets on the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6. According to the legend of la Befana, the Three Wise Men (called “re Magi”) stopped at her hut to ask directions on their way to Bethlehem and to invite her to join them. She refused and they continued on their way. Within a few hours the woman had a change of heart but the Magi were long gone. La Befana, which means Epiphany, still wonders the earth searching for the Christ Child. She is usually depicted in various ways: as a fairy queen, a crone, or a witch.
But la Befana could not find them or the stable. Now, each year she looks for the Christ Child. Since she can not find him, she leaves gifts for the children of Italy and pieces of coal (nowadays carbone dolce, a rock candy that looks remarkably like coal) for the bad ones.

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