A Neapolitan Christmas: What to Expect

21:06 Paul Robinson 0 Comments

I've spent my first Christmas in Naples and there some fascinating cultural differences in the way Christmas is celebrated in Italy and the UK. I was at home with Marcy's family in Naples where everything is bigger, louder and more Italian. Here are a few of the ways the Italians celebrate their Christmas.

Christmas Eve and seafood
The family all gather together for a big meal on Christmas Eve. Whilst families have a big family meal on Christmas Day as well (this is Italy after all; family and food is everything) it is Christmas Eve that is the main event. And its not turkey and roast potatoes on the menu but seafood. There are are also many many dishes and I struggled to eat everything. We all sat down to eat Napoli football club shaped pasta with artichokes, 'Zeppoline di alghe' dough balls with seaweed, 'calamari', 'chele di granchio' crab claws, 'risotto ai frutti di mare' seafood risotto, 'scarola' a Neapolitan leafy green, 'orata alla grilla' grilled sea bream and many other dishes. The equivalent of brussels sprouts - that horrible veg dish your mum makes you eat - is 'l'insalata di rinforzo' literally 'reinforcing salad' - a pickled salad of cauliflower, carrots and broccoli, a dish which stinks the room out. Although to be honest I love pickles and was quite happy to eat it.
The main problem for me was that we didn't sit down to eat until 10pm. In Italy they eat late and the Christmas Eve meal is timed to finish in time for the Midnight Mass. I was so hungry I wolfed down the first pasta dish and didn't leave enough space for the other dishes. I didn't want to look rude, so obviously, I still managed to eat everything.

In every family home at Christmas there well be a 'presepe', a homemade miniature nativity scene. In Naples, this is very important and at San Gregorio Armeno there is a whole street dedicated to selling little models and figurines. These scenes can be very elaborate and detailed. The presepe at Casa Greco includes shooting stars, flying angels and even farm animals. And no Neapolitan Nativity scene would be complete without the essential Pizzaiolo.
I find this tradition quite endearing. As a child I loved models of cars and planes and train sets. The presepe is also an opportunity to express some creativity and I'm sure there are many personal stories behind each arrangement of a presepe. Christmas is the perfect time for reminiscing about family and retelling old stories, especially that one about your Nan getting too drunk on Christmas Day.

La Befana
On the 5th January, the eve of the epiphany, a disgusting witch called la befana flies in on a broom and delivers sweets and presents for the nice kids and charcoal for the naughty ones. I have no idea what this has to do with Christmas, but the little witch is everywhere in Italy. Much like our Father Christmas and the Christmas tree, la befana is an amalgamation of pagan traditions, misspelled names and misunderstood history. La Befana also performs a similar role as Father Christmas by delivering presents and scaring kids into behaving of the festive period.
However, there aren't queues of kids in supermarkets waiting to sit on some old lady's knee. And to my eyes it is still strange to see pictures of a witch everywhere over the festive period!

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