by Louisa Loring
There is an old saying in Italy ‘Natale con i tuoi, Pasqua con chi vuoi’ which means Christmas with family and Easter with whom you like, friends or family. Christmas is an important time of the year in which everyone comes together from afar ‘a tavola’ or around the table, where Italians tend to spend a lot of their time. Christmas is not unlike other Italian traditions, that is, long, eventful and full of good food and company. A typical Florentine Christmas celebration really starts on the 24th with a fish dinner before evening mass at 23.00. Called the Seven Fish Dinner, which comprises of seven courses of different fish dishes from smoked swordfish to steamed mussels to pasta with clams, because traditionally, it is custom to refrain from eating meat before the birth of Christ. In some regions of Italy as many as twelve courses are served to represent the twelve days of Christmas.
The next morning, children wake up to stockings, traces of Babbo Natale (Santa Claus) and gifts are exchanged with family, only to be followed by another meal, this one though, full of meat. Most Italians eat at home but various restaurants are open for Christmas lunch in Florence serving up platters of cured meats and cheeses, piping hot bowls of tortellini in broth and mounds of boiled meats and vegetables. To top things off, Panettone or Pandoro (bread of gold), a sweet bread from Northern Italy is served with a strong espresso to pull you out of your food coma.
After Christmas lunch, it is most traditional for families to go to the cinema. For those who want to walk off their lunch and get a breath of fresh air, it is also tradition to take a stroll in the countryside or in a beautiful area in Florence, if weather permits. Other families, however, stay at home and play tombola, an Italian game similar to bingo in which each player aims to cover their number board first and yelling out ‘tombola!’ The evening closes with a light dinner of the broth made from cooking the boiled meats served for lunch.
And that’s not all! The 26th is the national holiday of Santo Stefano, which is primarily a day of rest. Most everything is closed in town, except the movie theaters, for those who didn’t make it after Christmas lunch. Most Florentines take it easy and wake up with no schedule; they sleep in and enjoy it. After all the hard work and preparation for the previous days, it is surely time for a rest, and that it is: no one does the cooking because leftovers are the star of today’s meal.
But Christmas is still not over. Celebration lasts for a full 12 days, hence ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ until the 6th of January, known as ‘La Befana’ or the Epiphany feast, which celebrates the story of the three wise men or kings who come bearing gifts to Jesus. The story behind the Befana comes from a fairytale about a woman on a broomstick who flies all over Italy bringing presents to children. Florence is no different in embracing this holiday by organizing a grand parade in the afternoon that runs through the city center. It is a final time to see Florence all done up, decorated, and beaming with Christmas spirit before the next year to come.
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