L’albero di Natale, my Christmas tree is now up and decorated. I usually have it all done by now, but I am behind this year. It was not planned, but I did the Italian thing this year! December 8th is l’Immacolata Concezione, the festa celebrating the conception of the Vergine Maria. It is a national holiday in Italia and the official start of le feste Natalizie-the Christmas season. It is also the day most Italiani put up and decorate their albero di Natale and presepio. The Christmas decorations-addobbi Natalizie stay up until January 6th, la festa del Epifania-after a visit from La Befana. Earlybirds decorate on December 6th the festa di San Nicola.L’albero di Natale is long standing tradition in Northern European countries, but a much newer custom in Italia. Alberi sempervivi-evergreen trees, have symbolized life, regeneration and immortality. The Celts, Vikings and pre-Christian Germanic tribes decorated evergreens during Solstice celebrations. In the harsh northern winters evergreen trees, holly and mistletoe were the only things that stayed green, so they were thought to have magical powers. Wreaths and evergreen branches were hung over doors as a defense against evil spirits and a symbolic defense against the harsh winter. I can totally relate to this last one. My addobbi Natalizie help me get through the winter! ‘Modern’ use of l’albero di Natale started in the 13th Century and became a custom in Northern Europe. In Southern Europe, it was seen as more of a Protestant custom and did not catch on. In 1848, when Prince Albert of Germany married Queen Victoria, he brought the Christmas tree custom with him, which spread through the British Empire. Regina Margherita di Savoia-yes she of pizza fame-was the first to decorate un albero di Natale in Italia in the late 1800’s at the Palazzo Quirinale. The custom spread slowly, but grew in popularity after WWII. In 1982, Pope Giovanni Paolo II first introduced a tree in Piazza San Pietro. Now most families have un albero di Natale and the presepio is often placed under the tree. Is your albero di Natale up yet? Buon Natale, Cristina
Panettone is a Christmas and New Year’s tradition in Italian households. Panettone (pah∙neh∙TOH∙neh) literally means big loaf of bread. Panetto is a small loaf of bread and the suffix ‘one’ makes it a big bread. The origins of panettone probably date back to the Ancient Romans, who made a leavened bread with honey and raisins. Bread has always been a symbol of family ties, as in ‘breaking bread’ together. In the middle ages, a sweet leavened bread with dried fruit was incised with the sign of the cross before baking as a blessing for the new year, then distributed to the family. A slice was also saved for the next year. In the 1400’s it became custom to make il pane di Natale-Christmas bread, with white flour and costly, hard to find ingredients that made it special. This was called pane di lusso-luxurious bread, which in Milanese dialect was ‘pan del ton’. Modern panettone originated 500 years ago in Milano during the reign of Ludovico Sforza (1481-1499). There are several legends regarding its origin.
In the most romanticized legend, Ughetto, son of nobleman Giacometto degli Antellari fell in love with the beautiful Adalgisa. To be near his innamorata, he pretended to be an apprentice baker for her father Antonio, who was called ‘Toni’. Desperate to impress Toni, Ughetto created a rich bread with yeast, butter, eggs, sugar and canditi- candied cedro and orange peel. The bread was an overwhelming success and people came from all over Milano to taste this ‘pane di toni’ – Toni’s bread. Duchess Beatrice d’Este, wife of Ludovico Sforza, was so taken with the love story that created this bread that she convinced Giacometto to let his son marry the baker’s daughter.
Another version takes place in Ludovico’s kitchens. There was a custom to prepare a particular dolce for guests on Christmas Eve. Unfortunately, it was burnt, sending the cook into desperation. One of the kitchen workers, a boy named Antonio, offered the bread he was making for himself using the dough left over the day before from the original dolce. It was a domed sweet bread with grapes. When the invited guests asked what this delicious dolce was called, the cook replied ‘pan del toni’.
The final legend is the simplest, but probably the most believable. It involves Suor Ughetta, a young nun in a very poor convent in Milano. To make Christmas Eve more festive, she made a dolce for her fellow sisters with butter, sugar, eggs, canditi and uvette. Uvetta means raisin in Italiano, and in dialetto Milanese it is pronounced ‘ughetta‘. Whichever legend we choose to believe, today panettone is synonymous with Natale for anyone of Italian origin.
In 1919, baker Angelo Motta opened his first pasticceria in Milano. He let his panettone rise 3 times, to the familiar cupola or dome shape on a cylinder that we see today. Previously the shape of panettone was more schiacciata-lower and more compact. Motta also invented the paper wrap and box. A few years later, he had a competitor in Milano, Gioacchino Alemagna. Their competition led to industrialized production of panettone, with factories replacing the small pasticcerie. They also began exporting all over the world. Today both Motta and Alemagna are owned by Bauli, based in Verona. Last year almost 120 million panettoni were produced in Italia!
I will be enjoying my panettone and prosecco for Capodanno-New Year’s eve, and making panettone French toast with ricotta if there is any left over! I have been experimenting with making my own panettone since last December. My next post will be a recipe for Panettone fatto in casa! Read about other dolci di Natale in this post. Buon appetito, Cristina
Today is la Festa dell’Epifania in Italia, celebrating the arrival of i Re Magi (the 3 Wise Men) Gasparre, Melchiorre & Baldassarre with their gifts of oro, incenso e mirra (gold, frankincense …
Continue reading original post: La Befana in English and Italiano. Buona Befana!
December 6th is the festa di San Nicola (Nee·KOHL·ah). San Nicola-or St Nicolas, was Nikolaos of Myra, a 4th Century bishop in Greek Anatolia, which is now Turkey. He was the only child of wealthy parents who died when he was young. He gave away all of his inheritance to help the poor and the sick and became known for his generosity, love of children, and the sea. Nicola is both a popular Christian and Orthodox Saint. Many European and Eastern Orthodox countries celebrate his feast day with gifts for children, who leave their shoes out on the night of December 5th. He is the Patron Saint of children, sailors, archers, pharmacists, harbours, the falsely accused, Amsterdam, Moscow, Russia, Galway and Greece!
San Nicola had a reputation for secret gift-giving and his legends grew after he died. In one of the most famous, he helped a poor man who could not afford dowries for his 3 daughters. Without dowries, they were unlikely to be able to marry, and would be assumed to be prostitutes or end up being sold into slavery. Nicola helped the family, but did not want to cause the father the humiliation of accepting charity. Over a period of 3 nights he went to the house. On the first 2 nights, he threw a purse filled with gold coins in through the window. The purses landed in stockings the daughters had hung by the chimney to dry. On the third night, the father had closed the window and waited by the door, so he could find out who the gift-giver was. Instead of going in through the door, Nicola dropped the bag down the chimney and it landed in the shoes drying by the fire.
San Nicola’s tomb in Anatolia became a popular place of pilgrimage. It seems things haven’t changed a lot since the 4th Century in that part of the world. Due to wars in the area, there was concern for the safety of pilgrims and access to the tomb. In 1087, sailors from Bari took the bones from the tomb home and the Basilica of San Nicola di Bari was built over his crypt. San Nicola di Bari was one of medieval Europe’s most famous places of pilgrimage. The Barese sailors must have been in a hurry because they left a few bones in the grave. These fragments were taken to Venezia where the church of San Nicolò al Lido was built. In the Middle Ages, people went crazy for relics-parts of holy persons’ bodies. They were revered and thought to have magical powers. Scientific investigations proved that the bones in Bari and Venezia do belong to the same skeleton!
In a blending of folklore, legend and religion, San Nicola is the model for Santa Claus, whose name comes from phonetic derivation of ‘San Nikolaos’. If you are ever in Bari, visit the tomb of San Nicola. The traditional Italian gift-bearer is La Befana, who arrives on the 6th of January, but now there is also ‘Babbo Natale’ (Father Christmas).
Today is la Festa dell’Epifania in Italia, celebrating the arrival of i Re Magi (the 3 Wise Men) Gasparre, Melchiorre & Baldassarre with their gifts of oro, incenso e mirra (gold, frankincense and myrrh) for newborn Bambino Gesù (baby Jesus).
The night between January 5th and 6th is also the 12th night between Christmas and the Epiphany, and marks the end of the Christmas holiday season. As the proverb says, ‘L’Epifania tutte le feste porta via’. What does this have to do with La Befana, the ‘Buona Strega’?
La Befana is the traditional ‘gift-bringer’ in Italian folklore. According to legend, which varies from region to region, she is an old woman who prides herself on being a good housekeeper. While she was sweeping, the 3 Wise Men stopped at her house to ask for directions to Bethlehem. She didn’t know the way but they invited her to join them to greet the newborn king and bring him gifts. She was quite abrupt and told them she had housecleaning to do and could not possibly join them.
Once they had left, she realized she had made a very big mistake not going with them. Befana quickly gathered food and gifts for the newborn King into a sack and uno scialle (a shawl) in case she was cold and set off to join the Wise Men. She even brought her scopa (broom) so she could sweep the floor for Bambino Gesù. Befana searched and searched but could not catch up to the 3 kings. She did not know they had taken a different route home.
To make up for the opportunity she missed, every year on the eve of l’Epifania, Befana flies on her broom delivering small gifts to children, in the hope that one of them is Bambino Gesù. Traditionally she fills calze (socks) with ‘caramelle o carbone’ (candies or coal). She leaves dolcetti (sweets), fichi secchi, noci, mandarini, cioccolatine (dried figs, nuts, mandarine oranges, little chocolates) and torrone for children who have been nice and leaves carbone (coal), cenere (ashes), cipolle e aglio (onions and garlic) for cattivoni (naughty children). Christmas markets in Italia sell black candy that looks like lumps of coal! A glass of vino and mandarini or biscotti are left on the kitchen table for La Befana and she sweeps the floor before she leaves. La Befana and her broom also symbolize the old year that is ‘swept away’ after the Christmas festivities.
Her name comes from Epifania which turned into Befania in dialetto and eventually Befana. ‘Una Befana’ can also mean an ugly old hag. If someone calls you a Befana it is not a compliment-unless they are referring to your gift-giving generosity!
‘La Befana vien di notte
Con le scarpe tutte rotte
S’è scucito la sottana
Viva viva la Befana!
Porta cenere e carboni
Ai bambini cattivoni
Ai bambini belli e buoni
Porta chichi e tanti doni!’
Oggi è la festa dell’Epifania in Italia. Si ricorda la visita dei tre Re Magi a Betlemme con regali di oro, incenso e mirra per il neonato Bambino Gesù. La notte tra il 5 e il 6 gennaio è anche la dodicesima notte dopo il Natale e la fine delle feste Natalizie. Il proverbio dice ‘L’Epifania tutte le feste porta via’. Ma questo che c’entra con La Befana, la buona strega?
Si dice che La Befana era una vecchietta molto preoccupata con il lavoro di casa. Mentre scopava fuori, i Re Magi hanno chiesto se lei conosceva la strada per andare a Betlemme perchè là era nato il nuovo Re. La Befana non conosceva la strada. I Re Magi l’hanno invitata ad andare con loro a portare dei regali al Bambino, ma lei ha detto che aveva troppo lavoro da fare e non era possibile. Dopo che se n’erano andati, La Befana ha capito che aveva sbagliato e ha deciso di raggiungere i 3 Re per andare a trovare il Bambino Gesù. Con uno scialle e un sacco con dolcetti e regali sulle spalle se n’è andata. Ha portata anche la scopa, per pulire il pavimento per il Bambino Gesù. La Befana ha cercato dappertutto ma i Re Magi erano già troppo lontani. Allora, ogni anno, nella notte tra il 5 e 6 di gennaio, volando cavalcando la scopa, La Befana porta regali ai bambini nella speranza che uno di loro sia il Bambino Gesù. Lei reimpie le calze dei bambini con ‘caramelle o carbone’. Dolcetti per i bambini bravi e cenere e carbone per i cattivoni. Si lascia un bicchiere di vino e un mandarino o biscotti sul tavolo per La Befana e lei scopa il pavimento prima di andare via.
Buona Befana a tutti! Cristina
Cauzuncill’ are ‘a forma di mezzaluna’ (half moon shaped) turnovers traditionally filled with mashed ceci (chick peas), vino cotto, mandarin orange and lemon zest, grated chocolate, sugar and of course alcohol. We also made some with ground almonds instead of ceci. Castagne (chestnuts) are sometimes mixed in with the ceci filling.
Cauzuncill’ are fried and then served drizzled with vino cotto. Don’t know what vino cotto is? When making wine, some of the freshly pressed grape juice (mosto) is slowly cooked all day until it is reduced and caramelized. It’s like a thick wine syrup that is used for desserts, muscitaglia on November 1st, and even drizzled on snow!
Dolci di Natale similar to cauzuncill’ are made in Basilicata and Molise, but the name, fillings and even the pastry change depending on the region. What kind of dolci di Natale does your family make?