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3 Quirky Italian Christmas Traditional Favorites with Zampognaro.

Updated on September 16, 2019
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Penelope is retired but teaches English in Rome. She is a published feature writer, playwright and poet. She loves local Italian customs.

Neopolitan 'Zampognaro' Crib Figure

Neopolitan Zampognaro
Neopolitan Zampognaro

Italian Christmas Traditions

Here are three quirky Italian Christmas traditions that are favorites among the people of different regions in Italy. Christmas wouldn't be the same without these traditions since they are rooted in the natural and religious culture of this eccentric, fascinating Italy.

  • Bag pipe playing shepherds called Zampognaro that have a place in the crib (in Naples)
  • Smoked eel is eaten in Maremma, Tuscany fished as a delicacy form the local Orbetello lagoon
  • Christmas celebrated on Christmas Eve with The Feast of The Seven Fishes

Plaster Nativity Characters in the Crib

In the heart of historic Naples is a street, Via Gregorio Armeno, where fanciful artisans create and sell all kinds and sizes of beautiful plaster nativity characters. Not just the famous principal characters of Christmas but the whole barn yard, the Three Wise Kings, their exotic foreign entourage, the angels, cherubs, serafins and anyone who could have been around, or in the atmosphere when the Nativity scene was first enacted (by Saint Francis of Assisi in Greccio Italy, in on Christmas eve A.D 1223). The Neapolitan figurino maker creates characters, sets and props richly detailed with the creative fantasy that fired the great Italian artists such as Michelangelo, Giotto, Caravaggio

I've attached a link so that you can have a look at this wonderful world but one of my favorites is the 'The Inn Keeper', his wife and customers. Another is the Zampognaro or "bagpipe player" and his his sheep dog.

Substantiated folk lore has it that the Zampognaro is in the crib with everyone else because he is Italian.

He is the poor, hungry, cold shepherd who many years ago used to visit people's homes in Southern Italy just before Christmas to play for some food, warmth and even the odd coin, if the people could share it. The mountain folk grandmother used to tell her grandchildren that the Zampognaro was playing his bagpipes at the door to announce Christmas, playing for the Little Child in the 'presepe' (manger).

Zampogna Tamburello in Calabria

Local Maremma Smoked Eel

Smoked eel
Smoked eel | Source
Fishing for eel on Orbetello lagoon
Fishing for eel on Orbetello lagoon | Source

Eel on Christmas Eve

Italians celebrate the feast of Christmas with the foods they have growing locally and from their coastal waters. A seven course fish dinner is the traditional Christmas Eve meal, indeed it is called The Feast of Seven Fishes!

It is the big family Christmas meal and is enjoyed at length on the evening before Christmas, the 24th December. (Called "La Vigilia" it stems from the time when families got together 'in wakefulness', devotionally waiting for the birth of the infant Jesus at midnight.) They must have nibbled on this and that, usually staying away from meat, since it was a religious evening and fasting was called for.

Inevitably, due to hunger and because an Italian loves his family get together (and the kitchen cupboards are stocked with the summers relishes, smoked and dried produce - to be offered and eaten at a moment's notice), the nibbling morphed slowly into a gourmet Christmas banquet, a fabulous get- together celebrated over as many as seven courses of lots of different and varied fish dishes.

One man's caviar, or cold roast ham, is another man's eel. Eel is a delicacy here. Where I live in Maremma it is a local dish, a delicacy fit for Christmas. Living in Tuscany and being close to the Orbetello Lagoon where eels have been breeding for centuries, we've been taught how they taste best.

It's good, less fatty, when it is simply prepared; smoked, sliced thinly, served with a dribble of local balsamic vinegar- a crust of warm white bread on the side, straight from the local ovens.

Christmas Eve in Italy

Christmas eve in Italy
Christmas eve in Italy | Source

Christmas Celebrated 24th December Eve.

It is at midnight between 24th - 25th December that Christmas swings, after Midnight Mass Spumante is popped while the family exchange gifts and cuddles. It all goes on, and on and on - all night, until daybreak

Italians, when they really love something, they REALLY, REALLY do. Their exuberance, their over-the-top amiability, their love for one another, once aroused, really has no limits. Someone pulls out the 'Tombola' (which is Bingo) and the long night of Christmas gets fun and serious. Boxes of nougat and sweet cakes come out, wines and liquori sipped and appreciated. Some of the drinks were made in the year, or ten years ago, by someone's mother or neighbor, or were bought especially because they are so fine. They will be appreciated, rolled round the palettes, tasted - and discussed - at length.

Children eventually fall asleep and sleep late on Christmas morning.

Santa doesn't come down the chimney and stuff stockings in Italy!

The Befana does on January 6th, but she's another story.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


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