December 15, 2008
Once upon a time, Christmas Eve dinner in Italy was very light, people went to the Midnight Mass, and then when they came home they exchanged gifts. A traditional Christmas in Italy nowadays involves the cenone di natale or huge Christmas Eve dinner with your family. You wait until midnight, and when midnight arrives the first thing you do is to put Gesù Bambino (Baby Jesus) in your crèche. Then, you exchange gifts with your family. And then, you continue eating! On Christmas day you don’t stop eating: now it’s time for friends to come over and have a huge lunch together – il pranzo di Natale!
Crèche or Nativity scenes (presepe or presepio in Italian) are a deep Italian tradition for Christmas. In fact, one can say it’s the most Italian among Christmas traditions since it was Saint Francis of Assisi who was the first to think of recreating the birth of baby Jesus (even though Neapolitans claim they had the first presepe about 250 years before Saint Francis’ one… well, in any case everything is connected to the Roman and Etruscan tradition of lares). Then, each region developed its very own tradition: wooden presepi in the northern regions (namely around Genoa), finely sculpted presepi in Bologna, ornate presepi with local products in Sicilia, and the complex and extremely realistic presepi in Naples. Presepi viventi (living crèches), where costumed people recreate the Nativity scene, are found all around Italy too: I played Saint Joseph when I was a kid!
I spent my first Christmas in North America in Philadelphia, and since the presepe was so important to me I needed to have one. But I wasn’t aware how difficult it was to get one. Before coming to North America, I lived in Chile where some traditions are very close to the ones you can find in Italy. In Chile, you have a huge dinner on Christmas Eve with your family, then you have a huge lunch on Christmas day using leftovers from the night before, and you always have a pesebre or crèche next to the Christmas tree. And you can buy these Nativity scenes all around the city; you can even buy one from street vendors in the markets. Well, getting one in Philadelphia wasn’t easy at all. First, I was surprised that in English you use the French word crèche to describe it. That was the first piece of evidence that it wasn’t a very American thing. Then we visited like 5 different Christmas stores. They didn’t have it. The last store we visited actually had one: a huge inflatable crèche. And a cold air balloon wasn’t exactly what I was looking for. Then we expanded our search limits and we went to the suburbs. And a crèche we did find, imported directly from Italy, of course. But it was too expensive, I mean extremely expensive. Christmas was coming and I didn’t have a crèche! Then one friend told us to ask a friend of his. She was an Irish Catholic girl, married to an Italian guy (that’s another thing I discovered here: Italians and Irish get along very well!). And she told us about the right place to go! And so we finally got a crèche!
Since Americans usually don’t do anything for Christmas Eve, I started a personal tradition of preparing a huge dinner to share with friends – and then we spend Christmas day with the family. It’s a late dinner because we wait until midnight. But it’s not a hard wait, because we have several antipasti, pasta as a starter, a comforting entrée and dessert. At midnight we put Baby Jesus in his manger, and we exchange gifts. I love to have a special gift for every guest, like a cute Nutcracker, and I always have some panettone to give! After that, we have a good cup of espresso, panettone, panforte and torrone! As you can see, I simply love Christmas! Of course, the first year we invited the Irish-Italian couple who told us where to find our crèche. And they loved our dinner so much that now they started their own tradition of a Christmas Eve dinner with friends.