Traditional Christmas Feast
(“Cena della Vigilia e Cenone di Natale”)
When Jesus Christ was born and the new Judeo-Christian religion
was introduced, the Christian religion was badly accepted and outlawed. The neophytes Christians in order to
celebrate the holy days without being too evident and to avoid incarceration or crucifixion, made the
Christian celebrations coincide with the pagan festivities. When Christianity was accepted, many of the pagan
feasts endured but were transformed into Christian holidays. They were a mixture of ancient pagan traditions
and magic, combined with the rituals of the new Judeo-Christian faith.
In Italy the birth of Jesus originally was celebrated by observing
a 24 hours fasting prior to Christmas Eve, and on the Eve, before going to midnight Mass, the fast was broken
with a light dinner without meat. At the beginning the light dinner consisted of locally caught fish and in
the hinterland of eels which could be caught in waterways, in pound and
Photo of the Nativity set.
Christmas day was a day of celebration and a special dinner was
served according to the local traditions, available food, and the family economic conditions.
went by, the food prepared for the Christmas Holiday has been subjected to changes and affected by the new
lifestyle and different cooking manners which varied from place to place. In fact, although Christmas Day is
rejoiced by all with a special dinner, in some regions Christmas Eve is observed with fasting and prayers, in
other areas it is a meatless meager meal and in other areas it has became a true Lucullan banquet
consisting of a variety of fish, pasta and sumptuous desserts.
December 25, Natale, is an holiday celebrated
almost all over the world, by Christians and by a very large number of lay people with rich formal dinners, with
the exchange of gifts, with gleaming house decorations and great offering of merchandize from stores, markets and
malls where this holiday has given to businesses the opportunity to generate extra sales, making the profit of this
period a good percentage of the year trading.
Traditional rules are strictly observed by some families,
featuring Christmas Eve dinners proposing three fish courses to symbolize the three Wise Men, or seven fish
courses to symbolize the biblical seven days of the creation, or thirteen fish courses to symbolize the
twelve Apostles and our Lord Jesus.
family eatery, “Joe’ of Avenue U the Focacceria Palermitana”, on Christmas Eve costumers, who were themselves or their ancestors
coming from different regions of Italy or Sicily, would order three, seven, or more different quality of fish,
and carry on the family traditions. In Italy
traditions are typically respected in the countryside by a small number of persons whereas the majority of
people have substituted the natural and simple local fares, with exotic dishes and complex dinner menus
with the exception of the eels and/or baccala’ present on Christmas Eve on every
typical Neapolitan and southern Italian traditional Christmas Eve menu’ include: pasta with clams, mussels
or fish sauce; capitone
fritto – fried eels, baccala’-
salted cod, aragoste al limone o fra’ diavolo –
lobsters in lemon sauce or in a spice sauce, calamari fritti o in
salsa – fried or stewed
squid, scungilli – conches and polpo –
that are locally caught are broiled, fried or cooked in sauce; an assortment of vegetable and salads are served
sautéed fried or stuffed, moreover in Naples the Insalata di Rinforzo made with boiled
cauliflower, pappacelle (pickled peppers), olives, giardiniera, capers, salted
anchovies and oil and vinegar, is a ritual dish consumed on the Eve and on Christmas Day. Also on every table
are always present mustaccioli, strufoli, and other desserts, along with dry fruits and assorted
Day’s options are unlimited: appetizers, baked pasta, stuffed capon, ham, elaborate recipes with veal or beef,
side dishes of vegetables in season, fruits, lavish desserts and again in the region of Naples, another ritual
dish is consumed on Christmas Day, the Minestra Maritata.
Married Soup is a rich broth made with pork loin,
and a mixture of sausages, capicollo, salami, pancetta, prosciutto, and soppressata, cut into bite size pieces; after the meats are cooked the soup
is “married”, which is combined with coarsely chopped cabbage, broccoli rape, chicory,
escarole, kale and diced cheese. Then it is simmered until the vegetables are tender and their taste is
blended into the broth; it is served warm with grated caciocavallo cheese on the
When I lived in Palermo
, in our
family, for la Vigilia, Christmas Eve, we
ate a thick stew prepared with chunks of boneless fish in a light tomato sauce and garnished with parsley and
Shrimps, calamari and fish sliced in small pieces or bits of fillets were
floured and fried; baccala’ salad with lemon dressing was served besides sarde a beccafico or stuffed fillets of
sole as well, my mother’s specialty, a variety of fried vegetables, primosale cheeses and baccala’ “a
pastetta“which was a batter of flour and eggs that would absorb very little oil and with a taste that only she
Salads and vegetables were part of the feast and without fail the
traditional smoked herrings and olive salad. For a sweet finish of the Eve, my mother would prepare another of
her specialties: the virgins’ breast - “Minni di Vergine”-, a fried pastry, leavened with yeast, eggs and milk,
flavored with cinnamon and stuffed with ricotta, sugar and chocolate.
Before going to midnight
PM. hot boiled
polpo- octopus - would be served with lemon and salt: a strica sali, meaning with salt
and without dressing.
The leftover polpo, calamari salad and other fish would be
combined into a delicious antipasto on Christmas Day and the leftover batter-fried cardoons, cauliflower,
artichokes, primosale – a soft, fresh cheese – were eaten greedily as we viewed the Nativity Set – il
Presepio – built every year with the help of the whole family.
Christmas Day, aside from the fish antipasto, a memorable and rich dinner was served
featuring anelletti al forno con sugo di
carne - baked
ring shaped pasta with ragu’- a specially prepared veal or beef fillet dish with potatoes, green salad, two or
three vegetables, cheeses, fresh fruits, buccellato – the Sicilian fig cake – Sicilian cassata and the classic
Christmas fruit cake,- il Panettone . Distinctive
wines were served with the dinner, including a favorite sweet wine to go with the desserts, Passito di
Pantelleria, preferred by my family. In the
traditionally Christmas Eve dinner is meatless although it varies from place to place; Christmas is a day of
celebration and the meal is made with special dishes even in the poorest families.
Sicilian towns lobsters are served boiled with lemon and oil, baked clams are stuffed with aromatized
breadcrumbs, sardines are made beccafico, baccala’ is baked
with cauliflowers, and in other cities their own customs are followed
For instance in Messina the mussels from the salt lake of Ganzirri
are an exceptional condiment to a pasta dish served for Christmas Eve, in concert with fried baccala’ and the
“ pituni frittu” a fried turnover filled with sautéed escarole, anchovies, fresh cheese and dry tomato.
In America the exposure to the vary ethnic styles of cooking has
influenced our preferences and on many Sicilian tables you will find caviar and smoked salmon, champagne
instead of spumante, many strange dishes and ready cooked restaurant food, something unthinkable a generation