Christmas in Calabria: Home for the Holidays

Picking clementines in Calabria“Oh I would love to spend Christmas in Calabria! It must be so magical and special!”

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.

Christmas in Calabria: Corso Umberto I BadolatoSome 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.

Nope.

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.

Hershey's Chocolate House for ChristmasLast week, Marisa and I made Christmas cards together with stickers (her) and a glitter pen (me) and sent them out. We’ve also constructed a gingerbread house and a chocolate house.

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!

******

Italy Blogging RoundtableThis month’s Italy Roundtable theme is HOME. Check out the other posts from around the table:

 

14 Beans of Wisdom to “Christmas in Calabria: Home for the Holidays”
  1. 12.15.2016

    Very nice – love the picture of your daughter, joyously reaching for a clementine. It really represents the simpler Christmas you describe and it reminds me of the descriptions in books of Christmases 100+ years ago when receiving a single orange for the holiday was like winning the lottery.
    (I’m also a sucker for the authentic sheepskin bagpipe.)

    michelle Reply:

    I always give my daughter a clementine in the toe of her stocking as a nod to my own Italian-American grandmother who, indeed, told me stories of when she was little and of a single orange being her gift! The bagpipes around here are made of goat, from what I’ve been told, and they are truly amazing to see (and hear, of course!) up close. I have always loved them and wondered whether I had Scottish blood in me — but then I came here and realized maybe I didn’t need it 😉

    KareninCalabria Reply:

    Your people definitely “own” the bagpipe, but you never know, you might have some of that Norman blood just the same…

    michelle Reply:

    Haha my people are the Calabrians…and the Germans, but they’re not very bagpipey 😉

  2. 12.16.2016

    Marisa is adorable and growing fast. I remember your posts when you just had her. I think Christmas has so many different meanings for everyone. Mine is with family and friends celebrating the love for each other with good conversation sitting around a table with wine and wonderful Italian food. Loved going to midnight mass and seeing the nativity scene and decorations in the church. As I get older the elders have passed on but the memories stay with me especially at Christmas. Merry Christmas to you and your family and a wonderful New Year. Paulette

    michelle Reply:

    Yes, most definitely the memories of Christmas past are dear for me. Once my grandmother passed away, the Christmases of old faded in my family too, unfortunately. But the memories are, indeed, forever 🙂

  3. 12.17.2016

    I have a bit of paper stuck up on my kitchen cupboard with a saying about Christmas.
    “It’s a celebration of a year well spent and a chance to feast on fine winter food with friends and family.” I like that. It helps me to keep a calm perspective. I simply will
    not jump into the Christmas frenzy of baking, shopping, wrapping, decorating. It’s NOT what Christmas was meant to be. Now we have our first grandchild. What will his future
    Christmases be like? His parents will most likely introduce him to the Santa fantasy.
    Oh well. They will come home for Christmas and we will get to snuggle him once more.
    He will be only four months old the next time we see him and we can’t wait. His presence will certainly make Christmas more special, as I am sure Marisa’s does for you and Paolo!

    Feliz Navidad, to you Michelle, and your family!

    Our daughter is home with us and today she and I WILL make some cookies for her brothers and our dinner guests. Peanut butter “blossoms,” you know, the ones with the chocolate kiss on top? Also, jam thumbprints and salted almond shortbread bark.

    michelle Reply:

    Yes! I love peanut butter blossoms — one of my favorites 🙂 Sounds like you have a lovely Christmas ahead and that you’re enjoying the season! Thank you for coming by and sharing a little piece here!

  4. 12.17.2016

    Omigod, the image of Babbo Natale carrying a Baby Jesus and blaring bagpipe music. I can’t stop giggling.

    michelle Reply:

    I shall try to get photographic and/or video evidence should I happen upon the scene this year 😉

  5. 02.07.2017

    Thanks for sharing! I love seeing what Christmas is like in other countries- and in other people’s homes even in the same country, with all the different traditions. Having moved from Canada to Australia, Christmas is definitely different, but still a magical time.

    michelle Reply:

    Thanks for reading, Mindy!

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Michelle FabioMichelle Fabio is an American attorney-turned-freelance writer living in her family's ancestral village in Calabria, Italy and savoring simplicity one sip at a time. 

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Recipes

 

Homemade apple butter
Green beans, potatoes, and pancetta
Glazed Apple Oatmeal Cinnamon Muffins
Pasta with snails alla calabrese
Onion, Oregano, and Thyme Focaccia
Oatmeal Banana Craisin Muffins
Prosciutto wrapped watermelon with bel paese cheese
Fried eggs with red onion and cheese
Calabrian sausage and fava beans
Ricotta Pound Cake