I hear this often from friends this time of year, and if you, too, believe this is a special and magical season here in the rural south of Italy, you’re not wrong.
Christmas in Calabria *is* magical and special — but maybe not in the way you might think.
Forget the quaint New England village Christmas with a medieval, cobblestone twist.
For starters, snow is highly unlikely. Last year, we didn’t need jackets on a wonderfully sunny and warm Christmas day. Indeed, picking clementines is one of our favorite December activities. No complaints here!
But what Christmas in Calabria lacks in white stuff and typical greeting card cuteness, it definitely makes up for through simple and pure joy revolving around family and food.
Even if that did take a bit of getting used to for this transplant . . . .
What Is Christmas in Calabria Like?
Put simply: much more low-key than what I grew up with in the United States, where people seem to be complaining about Christmas decorations appearing in stores earlier and earlier every year.
Here, festive touches go up in early December, in stores and in homes, and community celebrations are rather rare. There’s a smattering of Christmas markets and concerts, and I’m sure there are Christmas parties in larger towns and cities, but it’s not the norm in my village except perhaps among non-locals.
Instead, the biggest crowd draws are the presepi (Nativity scenes) set up by church volunteers; some towns have private competitions as well. A neighboring village, Sant’Andrea, has a live Nativity Scene (presepe vivente) featuring people dressed up as Mary, Joseph, the Three Kings, and shepherds, and Paola, on the Tyrrhenian Coast sets up a mini-Christmas Village that has been attracting a bigger crowd every year since it began in 2014.
Some Calabrian towns do have big, lighted Christmas trees in the piazza (especially larger towns and cities). Others don’t. My village has only had one in all the time I’ve been here, but we do get lights on the Corso (main street).
Our humble lights are rented out from a local company, so they are different every year, and get strewn across our barely-one-car-wide-street without much fanfare — just some dudes on ladders with string. One day they’re not there and the next day they are, making a crisp evening walk on the Corso a lot brighter.
Are gifts exchanged here? Yes, usually a smaller scale than what is more common in the US — though this is changing too, and I’m afraid not for the better.
Overall it’s safe to say Christmas in Calabria is family and food-based. The main meals are on Christmas Eve (Vigilia di Natale) and Christmas Day and may feature any or all of the following as well as a wide variety of other specialties: baccalà, stuffed lasagne, zeppole, pignolata, cumpettu, panettone or pandoro cakes.
You may have heard of (and even do) the Feast of the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve, but the first Paolo had ever heard of it was from me. In any event, seafood and fish do tend to feature in holiday meals here, probably because it’s considered a little fancier than your average plate (it’s also common at weddings, for instance).
And remember, the holiday season extends through the Epiphany on January 6 here, so all this family and food-related goodness continues well into the new year as well.
There is a Christmas Eve Mass — I’ve heard the church bells — but I’m not religious so I haven’t gone; there is also a pre-dawn novena leading up to the big day as well. There are no grand processions, parades, or anything of the sort, though. The closest we get to that is on December 8 for the Immaculate Conception, which kicks off the holiday season with a procession led by bagpipes (le zampogne).
Here in Badolato, we also have someone dressed as Babbo Natale carry around a little Baby Jesus statue and a portable radio blasting bagpipe music on Christmas morning. I have a feeling this may just be a particularly lovely village quirk, however.
Embracing a Calabrian Christmas
My first few years here, I have to admit that Christmas was a bit of a disappointment for me. There was no build-up, no excitement, no rush up to the holiday, no checking off lists and wondering whether I was forgetting anything. In some part that was because I was either on my own (the first couple years) or only had one other person (Paolo) to think about.
So when I had my daughter Marisa in 2013, I thought for sure the calm and relaxing holidays I had grown to appreciate on this side of the pond would get more hectic.
I breathed a sigh of relief when I realized I have complete control over whether to make things hectic and crazy and full of responsibilities.
And I choose “no, grazie.”
Now I just pick what I want to focus on and make those things as special as I can. The relaxed atmosphere around me helps — as does the fact that I don’t feel responsible for entertaining in-laws or extended family.
This year, as we have for all of my daughter’s Christmases so far, we will be spending Christmas in Calabria, in famiglia, as they say. The house is decorated more than it ever has been; having a three-year-old who talks about Babbo Natale every day has certainly helped me get into the spirit.
She fell in love with Snoopy over Halloween (thanks Great Pumpkin!), so we’ve been listening to one of my favorite Christmas songs quite a bit — I have glorious childhood memories of jamming out to my Snoopy’s Christmas record (yes, record!) as Snoopy battles the “Bloody Red Baron.”
This year, I introduced her to Home Alone and she laughs hysterically whenever Macaulay Culkin slaps the aftershave on his face and Joe Pesci gets his hat burned off and Daniel Stern steps on glass ornaments.
Every. Single. Time.
And, accordingly, so do I.
I haven’t planned out a menu yet for Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, but I’m sure it’ll be delicious and decadent. And most certainly involve pasta.
But for now, we still have cookies to bake — chocolate chip and peanut butter for sure, maybe thumbprints, hmmm — and I have a handful of presents left to wrap, so I’m not too concerned with the food aspect yet.
It’s only December 15th after all, so there’s still plenty of time to figure it out. We’re in no rush.
Wishing you and yours a healthy, happy, peaceful, and calm holiday season!
- Jessica: Italy Explained – You’ve Been Gone So Long (On Leaving Home & Finding Ancestral Roots)
- Rebecca: Brigolante – The Humble Art of the Nativity Crèche in Umbria
- Laura: Ciao Amalfi – Finding Home on the Amalfi Coast