ADVENT THROUGH EPIPHANY
The Christmas season is anticipated by Advent (from the Latin “adventus” meaning “arriving, coming” and refers to the coming birth of Jesus). The Advent countdown begins four Sundays before Christmas, starting on the last Sunday of November, which, in America, follows closely on the heels of Thanksgiving.
The true spiritual basis of Advent is a contemplation on the significance of the birth of Christ. It is also a period of restrained consumption and partial fasting in some traditions, symbolized by the meatless Feast of the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve before Mass.
The Twelve Days of Christmas start on Christmas Day and end on Epiphany or Three King’s Day (January 6). Epiphany is the celebration of the day that the Three Kings arrived “from the east” to bring gifts for the Christ child (as in the Christmas carol: “We three Kings of Orient are/Bearing gifts we come from afar…”).
Below are some favorite traditions and specialties of the season.
Advent calendars with different themes for counting the days before Christmas are many! Each day of Advent might be highlighted by a different wine, spice, chocolate (see Godiva chocolate Advent calendars for example); or perhaps each day might bring a little gift or message of goodwill.
THE GIVING OF GIFTS
The giving of gifts during the Christmas season commemorates the gifts of the Three Kings who visited the Baby Jesus in the manger. In America, “the holiday of gift-giving” is kicked off by the post-Thanksgiving “Black Friday” sales, and Christmas morning is the moment anticipated by children for opening festively wrapped presents—but this is not universal. Even today in Italy the day of gift-giving is not Christmas but Epiphany, January 6, at the conclusion of the “Twelvetide.” At that time, the Befana (the Christmas Witch) brings gifts to the good children and lumps of coal or rocks to the children who have not behaved well during the year.
One special tradition in many European areas is the Christmas Market. These originated in Germany, (Nuremberg being one of the largest and most historic), and today are found in Austria, Switzerland, the parts of France adjoining Germany (Strasbourg, for example, has a major Christmas market), and northern Italy, especially in areas such as the Alto Adige and Tyrol (German-speaking Italy). There are major Italian Christmas markets in Bolzano, Milan, Torino (Turin), Venice and Florence. Along Lake Como many of the towns set up nativity scenes and locals and tourists alike walk through the towns in processions from one nativity scene to another. There is a tradition of buying the beautifully handcrafted Christmas tree ornaments at local market stalls.
It is winter and visitors to the markets want to be warm, so mulled beverages are an important tradition. I have seen recipes not only for mulled wine, but mulled gin, mulled brandy, and toddies. What is there not to like about steeping cinnamon sticks, cloves, star anise, peppercorns, cardamom, bay leaves, and other aromatics in a base of wine or tea, and drinking this concoction hot out of large mugs while walking through your favorite Christmas market? Or you can also just enjoy these beverages at home in front of the fireplace on a cold evening.
In the markets there is always excitement for Christmas “sweets.” We here in America can taste stollen from Germany or panettone from Italy. But the products sent here are loaded with preservatives to protect their freshness during long distances over the ocean and extended shelf life necessary for the holiday season. These imported treats, while tasty, are not even close in flavor, texture, or overall enjoyment to the fresh products sold in bakeries or in the stalls of Christmas markets—served warm and fragrant, with “just-out-of-the-oven-goodness.”
Bring some of the Christmas market tastes home by making your own torrone, pandoro, zeppoli (best when right out the fryer), pizzelle. One of the favorites in our Nonna’s house was crostoli (so-named in the Venetian dialect, but also called chiacchiere, frappe, sfrappole, cenci, galani, bugie—it all depends which province of Italy you are from and which dialect you speak)—fried strips of dough (similar to pie dough) flavored with orange or lemon zest that puff up when fried in hot oil. Delicious but unfortunately out of favor in our modern health-conscious world where dough fried in oil is a big “no-no.” My advice is to ignore the prohibition and look up the recipe and try them. You won’t be disappointed!
FEAST OF EPIPHANY
Of course the holiday of celebrating the arrival of the Three Kings has its own special meal—the Feast of Epiphany. Prominent is the Three Kings Cake, somewhere between a cinnamon roll and a coffee cake. Traditionally it is baked with a surprise tucked inside—a bean or even a small baby doll, symbolizing the Christ child. The person who is served that piece of the cake containing the surprise is deemed to have good luck and many blessings for the coming year. The Three Kings Cake is found in America as a specialty in New Orleans where it is baked from Epiphany until Mardi Gras. (Incidentally, the area along the Mississippi in New Orleans where the now-famous Café du Monde serves beignets and coffee 24 hours a day was historically called “Little Italy” and the word Mafia has been used to refer to this part of the city.)
In Tuscany the Epiphany dinner starts with the antipasto, then progresses to a pasta dressed usually with olive oil and herbs (as tomatoes are out of season). Desserts not only include the Three Kings Cake but a plethora of cookies, as is true not only throughout Italy but Germany and other countries with strong Christmas traditions. Cantucci (the Italian name for what we here in America call “biscotti”; in Italy “biscotti” is the term for cookies in general), amaretti, amarenas (cherry cookies made with brandied cherries), gingerbread (cookies in the shape of people and built into model houses), among many others. In Venice the meal is often finished with a cake called pinzi, which is more like a coffee ring studded with candied fruits and saturated with grappa (grape-based brandy). Maybe you can see the relationship between pinzi and the English Christmas Pudding (fruitcake soaked with brandy or rum and aged).
In short, Christmastide is replete with celebrations and traditions, not least of all the feasts laden with antipasti, roasted meats, pastas, desserts and cookies of all kinds. We hope you will enjoy your holidays and all the extended festivities. Buon Natale e Felice Anno Nuovo.