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Actually Christmas Eve holds greater importance than Christmas Day for Catholic families and was once characterised by fasting: a centuries old tradition symbolising waiting for the birth of Christ. Gifts are often exchanged at midnight - although many wait until the Befana on Jan 6th to do this - and often there is a toast with spumante or prosecco! The word for Christmas Eve in Italian is 'vigilia' meaning vigil (or staying awake), but it is also a term used for religious observance, such as fasting.
Fasting was eventually replaced by the eating of fish and the reason fish was chosen is simple: meat was something only the wealthy could afford and was perhaps viewed as a sign of indulgence, whereas fish was accessible to everyone - typically eaten by the poor and, in particular, fishermen. Therefore the gesture of giving up something ‘prized’ such as meat and replacing it with the humble fish became a symbolic substitute for fasting.
This tradition of eating fish on Christmas Eve has continued to present day in Italy, with possible minor recipe variations from region to region, and dishes usually include: mixed fried vegetables such as broccoli or artichoke, fried salted cod fish 'baccalà fritto', roast eel 'capitone arrostito', smoked salmon and scampi cocktails, artichoke 'alla romana' (baked artichoke hearts with mint and flat-leaf parsley), or 'alla Giudia' (sliced and fried in a frying pan); soups made with chickpeas as the main ingredient flavoured with garlic and rosemary, Pecorino Romano cheese and little anchovies.
For Christmas Day (meat is allowed): oven baked lamb and roast potatoes 'abbacchio al forno con patate' and pasta (similar to tortellini) in broth 'cappelletti in brodo', boiled vegetables and stuffed turkey. For dessert the following are traditional: pampepato and pangiallo (dried fruit, candied peel, with flour, honey and chocolate). Nociata, which is a type of home-made nougat 'torrone' prepared with hazelnuts; and of course Panettone and Pandoro, which didn't originate in or near Rome but are widely available throughout the whole of Italy and have become known as typical Italian Christmas desserts. Nuts, dates, dried figs and clementines are also popular.
New Year's Eve manages to surprise most - lentils (with spiced sausage or stuffed pigs trotter) and spumante or prosecco at the stroke of midnight! The lentils represent coins, which signifies hope of a prosperous new year and the pig signifies richness of life - or something like that; the sparkling wine is just for fun - all celebrations need to go off with a bang!
So now you know what awaits if you are invited into an Italian home over Christmas....and if you're not, there are plenty of excellent delicatessen (look/ask for 'fornaio', 'salumeria' or 'alimentari') around Rome where you can buy cured hams and other cold cuts, cheeses, roast vegetables and pandoro or panettone, if you wish to create your own Italian Christmas picnic! Good spumantes can be found in most supermarkets priced at around €5 - €8. Look for traditional desserts in old family run bakeries such as Valzani in Trastevere on via del Moro - try their Mostaccioli! If you've decided to splash-out choose one of the 5-star hotel restaurants in the centre of Rome and enjoy lunch or dinner with amazing atmosphere and views of the city.
Where I shopped for my lovely place settings...
Well, my aim was to do this on a budget, so the tablecloth is just a few metres of hessian threaded with gold sparkle and cost about €6, the place mats were from Upim (a good value store), the water glasses were from a shop on via del Pellegrino, which sells a whole bunch of unusual glassware (go right to the back of the shop - it's like Aladdin's Cave), the napkin tassels were from a tiny haberdashery shop run by a wonderful old lady (these tassels were handmade and were the most expensive part of the whole ensemble @€12 each), the candles and other table decorations were from Velitti in Vigna Clara, and the rest of the items I already had.