Hello everybody,

‘Tis the season to be jolly, fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la! Do you hear the sound of bagpipes in the background? No, you’re not dreaming, and you’re not in Scotland, attending a display of the Scottish Highland Fling. You’re in Italy, at Yuletide.

Christmas in Italy was heralded by bagpipes. Shepherds came down from the mountains of Abruzzo and Latium, playing traditional tunes to mark the start of the festive season. These shepherds are known as Piferari or fifers. Today, children, and sometimes even adults, dress up as shepherds in breeches and coats, and go from house to house, playing bagpipes, to keep the tradition alive. They are given little gifts, usually money, and enjoy themselves hugely.

The season of Christmas is long and joyous here. It starts four Sundays before Christmas, on the first Sunday of Advent, and the Advent Calendar is specially useful in the countdown to Christmas Day. There are a couple of important days in-between, the Feast of St Nicholas on December 6, the Celebration of the Immaculate Conception on December 8, the Feast of St.Lucy on December 13, and Christmas Eve of course. Best of all, the festivities don’t end on Christmas Day, but go on till Epiphany, on January 6. That’s a lot of merrymaking, isn’t it?

That’s because Christmas in Italy harks back to the Pre-Christian era, and the festival of the Winter Solstice, known as Saturnalia in the Ancient Roman Empire, falls roughly around this time. The two festivals were sort of superimposed on each other. Both celebrate birthdays, one of the Son of God who conquered Death and the other, of the Unconquered Sun. In fact, Natale, which is Italian for Christmas, means birthday.

Even today, there are pageants and torchlight processions through the streets of towns and cities in Italy during Christmas time, a remnant of the Saturnalia festivities.

Did you know that the custom of setting up a manger at the Christmas season began in Italy? It can be credited to St Francis of Assisi. The saint, who visited Bethlehem in 1223, borrowed the custom there of staging tableaux of the nativity with real people, and the idea was modified into carved representations of the Holy Family in the Bethlehem stable, complete with shepherds and donkeys and oxen, which were believed to have warmed the new-born babe with their breath. Often, the Wise Men are added later. And sometimes the principal characters are joined by statuettes of local heroes!

In fact, the figures of the crib, or crèche or manger, as they’re variously known elsewhere in the world, have acquired the status of art here in Italy, and some are extremely valuable in terms of both artistic and monetary worth. Figurines cast in precious metals or carved in coral are to be found in Italian museums.

On a less exalted plane, Prespe, as they’re known in Italy, made of clay or plaster of Paris are set up in churches and homes, and sometimes churches hold competitions for the best Prespio. On Christmas Eve, the people of Italy come out to view as many manger scenes as they can. Nativity plays are also staged by amateurs and professionals alike.

In Italy, as in other places all over the world, there is a tradition of decorating an evergreen tree – it symbolizes life, the cross and rebirth. But there’s also a slightly different tradition that is very popular – the Tree of light. This is an upright triangular structure in wood, with shelves in between. The entire Ceppo, as it is called in Italian, is decorated in coloured paper and pinecones and other ornaments. The bottom shelf has a prespe in it, while the upper ones have candy, gifts and ornaments. Little candles are placed along both sides of the frame, and a star or doll is placed at the top, much like the fairy or angel or star which crowns an ordinary Christmas Tree.

You can get everything you need to set up your nativity scene and decorate your Ceppo or your Christmas tree at the Christmas markets that are held all over the country. They’re called Christkindlmarkts, and they combine the spirit of Christmas and of a fairground, with stalls selling bright Christmas baubles, organ grinders, musicians and food stands. People throng the fairs which go on till Christmas Day. You can also buy gifts for your Urn of Fate, which is a kind of lucky dip held during Christmas time. Presents are wrapped and put in an urn, and all members of the family take turns to dip their hands in and pull out a gift. They continue till the urn is empty.

Gift giving is a universal tradition during the Christmas Season, and Italy is no exception. But here, sometimes little children are told that the gifts they get on Christmas morning are from Baby Jesus himself, though the legend of Santa Claus is also popular. However, Italy has its own version of Santa Claus, and it’s is a lady! And what’s more, she’s a witch, albeit a kindly one, called La Baffna. Another unique point is that La Baffna distributes her gifts not on Christmas Eve, like St.Nicholas does, but on Epiphany, which falls on January 6th.

Legend has it that the Magi, who followed the Star and came in search of the baby Jesus, stopped at La Baffna’s house and asked for directions to Bethlehem. She told them, and they invited her to come along with them to see the baby who would grow up to be the King of the World, but she said she had too many chores to do around the house, and refused to go. The shepherds also knocked at her door and asked the way to the stable, and they too asked her to go with them to see the Prince of Peace. Again, she declined. A little later, she saw a great light in the sky, and thought that she should have gone with the Wise Men or the shepherds. She rushed around the house, picking up some toys which belonged to her grandchildren, and set off in search of the baby. Sadly, she didn’t find Baby Jesus, but at each house she visited while looking for him, she left something for the children. Like Santa Claus, she seems to know ‘who’s naughty and who’s nice’, because the good ones get gifts, but the naughty ones get only a piece of coal. Nowadays, of course, the ‘coal’ is only make-believe, it’s actually candy! And the children of Italy put out their shoes to collect the gifts, instead of hanging up their stockings!

Another charming deviation from the common practice is that Italian children, instead of writing letters addressed to Santa Claus, North Pole, write to their parents, wishing them and telling them how much they love them. These letters are placed at the father’s place at the dinner table, and they’re read out when the family sits down for the meal.

The Christmas feast is preceded by a 24-hour fast, which is broken at dinner on Christmas Eve, when the Feast of the Seven Fishes is celebrated. The meal is traditionally without meat, and many kinds of fish and seafood are served instead.

Before dinner, when the first star appears in the sky, devout Italians light candles and place them in their windows to guide the Christ Child to their homes. After the meal, they go to church for mass. Special songs are sung at shrines to the Virgin Mary. Interestingly, St.Jospeh isn’t forgotten either. People visit the homes of carpenters and sing songs, to honour the carpenter of Nazareth.

Throughout the season, traditional families keep a yule log burning in their homes. Here again, a throwback to Pre-Christian times can be seen, in the significance of fire as a purifying force, symbolizing the destruction of the old year, with all its evils, to make way for a new, resurgent year. The ancient tradition has been imbued with Christian overtones. Italians believe that while they’re away at church on Christmas Eve, the Virgin Mary comes into their homes and warms her little baby before the blazing log. What can be more charming than that concept?

Then it’s Christmas Day and time for feasting. The Christmas meal is superb in Italy. It’s called Cenone, and traditionally includes anti pasto, or starters, spaghetti, fish, pork, turkey, salads, fruit and sweets. Panettone, Panforte and Torone are some of the Italian sweetmeats served at Christmas. Most of them include nuts and honey, symbolizing prosperity and a sweet future.

The festivities continue into the next day, the Feast of St Stephen, and then on to the Feast of San Silvestro on December 31. January 1 is of course New Year’s Day, and the merry making winds down five days later, on January 6th, when the Wise Men are believed to have finally reached the stable in Bethlehem.

The Christmas season sure is a great time in Italy, isn’t it?

Cooking School in Tuscany

If you like to cook or just love food , we support a cooking class close to Florence due to the great quality, friendliness of the chefs and the incredible response we have had from the people who have attended the classes.

The cooking class is called “Good Tastes of Tuscany “ and the classes are held in the magnificent kitchen of a 14th century castle . The classes involve hands on fresh pasta making , the tricks to the tuscan cooking techniques and a vast menu even for the basic classes from antipasto to desert.

You'll cook together with the Chef and you'll eat what you prepared all together following the class. A full meal is served so you can relax and savour your efforts making new friends , having a laugh over a glass of wine and experiencing the tuscan lifestyle of times gone by.

The classes are run by 2 italian english speaking chefs.

One of the chefs learnt by the most important teachers ; her family. The traditional Italian housewife that takes care of the house was the center of everything in a home and also for entertaining. The chef was taught by her grandmother and mother the skill of true Tuscan cooking and later through many courses and a catering business.

Another chef began as a restaurant owner in Florence and then expanded his knowledge through the most noted italian courses for professionals . They also have a indepth knowledge on the history of Tuscan cuisine, the variety of dishes from each area and seasons.

They are both warm , passionate and friendly people and very eager to please , when I have commented to them about the satisfaction of the attendees they responed “ we just love people and what we do so much that this obviously transmits to the clients”.

You can obtain information about the classes and also costs from the website:
www.tuscany-cooking-class.com

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