Christmas is full of customs and celebrations, but more and more often, we’re seeing a variety of traditions when it comes to Christmas food. Cookies, fudge and pies are standard (and delicious) desserts in the United States, but there are many options for the main course. Some families do a ham or turkey with stuffing. Other cook prime rib, tamales or some kind of seafood. And of course, in our opinion, you can never go wrong with pizza or pasta!
As we were sharing ideas of all the different meals that are eaten on Christmas, we did some digging to find out the customary meals for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in Italy.
Seafood on Christmas Eve
To begin, it’s not uncommon for the Christmas Eve meal to include several courses, with the number of dishes linked to theological reasons: seven courses for seven Catholic sacraments, or 12 courses for the 12 apostles.
According to tradition, the meal for La Vigilia (Christmas Eve) is fish and vegetables. It doesn’t include any meat because on the eve of any religious festival in Italy, you’re supposed to eat lean to help purify your body for the holiday. Also keep in mind, with the way many Italians celebrate and cook, we’re not sure any of the fish dishes are actually that lean!
On Christmas Eve in Italy, you’ll also see meals that include shellfish, capitone (eel), baccalà (a dry salted cod fish) and octopus. In Naples, a popular appetizer is a sautéed seafood mixed with broccoli. In Rome, locals love pezzetti, a dish that includes fried cubes of ricotta and often artichokes, zucchini or broccoli.
Pasta dishes vary from region to region. In the north part of the country, especially Lombardy and Piedmont, lasagna is the preferred choice, especially covered with anchovies. Down south in Naples, tradition calls for vermicelli with mussels or clams.
Pasta on Christmas Day
Lunch on Christmas Day is typically the main meal, and it’s all about pasta. Pasta in brodo — pasta in broth — is a traditional across much of Italy, but particularly in the north. In Bologna, tradition calls for meat-filled tortellini in eel broth. In Ferrara, you’ll frequently see pastas stuffed with pumpkin.
One interesting custom is that after the Christmas Day, the table stays set even after everyone has left because they host family is waiting for Mary and the baby Jesus to come taste the food!
Finally, the day ends with desserts that will include sweet breads, like panettone and pandoro. Other popular treats are cavallucci, cookies with the image of a horse, dita degli apostolic, chocolate- or coffee-flavored ricotta-filled omelets, and spiced nut pastries called mostaccioli that are especially popular in Rome.