I love Tuscany any time of the year, but I always look forward to Christmas just a little more than the other seasons!
Traditionally in Italy, families gather for a Christmas Eve dinner, followed by the opening of the presents. Christmas Eve dinner is often meatless, whilst the Christmas Day lunch includes succulent meats.
The gift giving on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day is not so indulgent however, as it is more traditional to give gifts on the 12th day of Christmas, 6th January when La Befana arrives to bring gifts to good children, and coal to the naughty ones!
Therefore, Babbo Natale (Father Christmas) shares his gift-giving role with this old Italian woman who flies on a broomstick from house to house 12 days after Babbo Natale.
Christmas Carols are said to have developed by Saint Francis of Assisi during the 13th Century. His fascination with the baby Jesus led him to write Latin hymns (such as Psalmus in Nativitate) devoted to the Christmas spirit, which in turn inspired his Franciscan monks to compose Italian carols.
These days, Christmas decorations can be seen popping up on streets and in shop windows from approximately mid-November. However, more traditionally they were put out as part of the celebrations for 8th December, which is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.
Whilst Christmas trees are becoming more and more popular, it is the nativity scene that is still extremely popular in Italy. Almost every church has a presepe, and the good ones even draw in crowds. Some can also be found in Piazzas and other such public areas.
Small towns will also hold a bonfire on Christmas eve, but this tradition is not often seen in the more metropolitan areas.
Christmas in Florence last year meant dinner with the family - a heavy and delicious meal of soups, pasta, stews, and fantastic desserts. After dinner, we all stood up from the table, with some difficulty after the extensive meal, to go for a walk through the brilliantly lit streets.
There were still some stores open, some with people sharing a glass of prosecco with their customers (who are inevitably friends or family in these small Italian towns!) and totally disinterested in actually selling anything!
It is somewhat surprising to see so many people out on the streets on the afternoon of Christmas. But in fact, Christmas afternoon is usually when people will see friends, go for a walk after a big lunch, or in some areas, it is even popular go to the cinema!
And of course, in the country that gives home to the Vatican, there are also many who attend mass.
Many people were heading to the various churches that are scattered throughout Florence, and as we passed each church, we were serenaded by the angelic choir voices of carol singers enticing us in with their siren sounds. Resisting, we walked on and on, through crowded piazzas despite the cold, passing the Santa Maria Novella church with its outdoor Nativity Scene.
We continued past, going on until we were at our destination, the house of Tiziano and Elena. We had bought them a traditional Italian Christmas gift of Paneforte and a bottle of sweet Prosecco.
The panforte we had purchased from the famous Santa Croce Christmas markets where there is a wonderful mix of stalls selling traditional Italian fare and international Christmas items. Each year, it is lovely to walk through the crowds of people, all relaxed and smiling. When your hands get cold, it is a great excuse to grab a cup of the deliciously spiced and hot mulled wine from the stand near the church steps.