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Traditions & Dishes for an Authentic Italian Holiday Meal

by Ella
Traditions & Dishes for an Authentic Italian Holiday Meal

Christmas in Italy:

In Italy, people anticipate the arrival of Christmas – a time to be with our families, to exchange and unwrap gifts, and most importantly – to eat delicious food!

Italians’ main guilty pleasure is indeed food, and if there is one day where having a feast is mandatory, it’s Christmas Day.

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Christmas is a fundamental day in the religious calendar, and in the past, its main reason was to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. Today, the religious importance of December 25th is often pushed aside, and religious Italians tend to celebrate Christmas Eve by going to midnight mass.

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Each family has its own customs and traditions, which can differ greatly depending on where in Italy they live. In general, extended families come together and spend time around the Christmas tree exchanging gifts, sitting for a long Christmas Day lunch, and playing board games and card games.

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If you are curious to know all about how Italians celebrate Christmas Day, in this post, you will discover:

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True Italian Christmas revolves all around food. Whether celebrating at home or in a restaurant, at Christmas, Italians meet with their families to eat!

Christmas Day vs. Christmas Eve meals in Italy: what’s the difference?

You might ask: what’s the difference between Christmas Day and Christmas Eve meals in Italy? Well, we have different dishes for the two meals:

Christmas Eve Dinner focuses on seafood, based on the Catholic tradition of giorno di magra.

Christmas Day lunch has a meat-based menu.

As always, when it comes to Italy and food, what is eaten greatly depends on the region of the country you are in.

Traditional Italian Christmas Lunch Menu

Christmas lunch usually starts around noon, when the aperitivo is served, and it goes on all day long. The last course, the dessert, may be served as late as 5:00 pm! The long hours of sitting at the table eating are also one of the reasons why many families decide to unwrap gifts before lunch starts – little kids gather around the Christmas tree to see what Babbo Natale (Santa Claus) has brought them over the night.

Christmas Day lunch in Italy is a big feast, with large family groups meeting up to spend time together during the holidays.

Christmas meals focus on traditional regional and local food, which means that there is no one traditional Christmas menu for all of Italy. Instead, each family has its own Christmas lunch or dinner menu with regional and local dishes.

1. Italian Christmas Lunch – Aperitif (Aperitivo)

Before the main meal, people always drink an aperitif. But some people don’t like alcoholic beverages very much, so they drink some staple beverages:

Prosecco: Aperol spritz, the classic cocktail made from prosecco, aperol, sparkling water, and an orange slice

Punch: a cocktail made with rum, punch, orange peel, cinnamon, and anise

2. Italian Christmas Lunch – Appetizers (Antipasti)

You can always find these appetizers on the Italian Christmas lunch table:

Crostini con salmone (slices of smoked salmon served on bread with butter)

Bruschette ai funghi (the mushrooms pan-fried with onion and butter and served on grilled bread)

Crostini con patè di olive (bread slices with a paste made from black olives)

Carciofi fritti (fried artichokes)

Olive all’ascolana (fried olives stuffed with meat)

Mozzarelle fritte

Pizza di formaggio (a savory cake with parmigiano and pecorino cheese)

Salumi

3. Italian Christmas Lunch – First Courses (Primi)

In many Italian homes, Christmas is not Christmas without Brodo Cappelletti! Cappelletti are very similar to tortellini: the main difference is how the pasta is sealed.

tortellini, cappelletti, or agnolotti in brodo

lasagne

pasta al forno: like cannelloni

4. Italian Christmas Lunch – Main Courses (Secondi)

The second courses on Christmas are traditionally meat-based, unlike Christmas Eve when Italians usually eat seafood.

Lesso di cappone (the capon that is cooked in the broth we use for the cappelletti)

Angello fritto (fried chop lambs)

Meat bollito (which is similar to lesso: the main difference is that the meat in the bollito is put into the pot once the water is boiling, while in the lesso when the water is still cold)

Roast chicken or veal

Vitel Tonne (thin slices of roasted veal with a mayonnaise, tuna, and caper sauce)

Italian Christmas Lunch – Vegetable Dishes (Verdure)

5. Italian Christmas Lunch – Main Course (3rd)

Spinaci con burro e parmigiano (spinach with butter and parmigiano cheese)

Insalata russa (prepared by my nonna with cooked potatoes, carrots, peas, and home-made mayonnaise)

Roasted potatoes

6. Italian Christmas Lunch – Desserts (Dolci)

The moment when the desserts are put on the table is as exciting as when the appetizers are served! There is one main difference: at this point, we’ve been sitting at the table for hours and we have full bellies. But there is always room for dessert, right?! Typical Italian Christmas Day lunch desserts include:

Pandoro or panettone: depending on personal preference

Torrone (coffee torrone)

Clementine

Walnuts

Attending an Italian Christmas Lunch

If you’re getting ready to attend a Christmas Lunch in Italy, you should consider bringing a gift to the host. As you can imagine, bringing food-related gifts is always much appreciated by Italians. A good-quality bottle of wine or liquor, as well as a Christmas dessert like torrone, are great ways to thank the host for their hospitality. Another gift idea would be to prepare a traditional dish from your home country, something not-too-filling that can be eaten and shared during aperitivo or as an antipasto.

The Christmas Lunch usually starts around noon, but it would be nice to arrive a little earlier so you can help in the kitchen. The host will be very busy preparing all the food, so an extra pair of hands will be much appreciated!

Hosting Italian Christmas Lunch

The best tip I can give you if you want to host a typical Italian Christmas Lunch is to plan ahead! Of course, it’s important to entertain your guests but it’s even more important to have the food ready. Buy your groceries days in advance and meal-prepping as many dishes as possible.

If you are hosting the Christmas Lunch while in Italy, you can buy the ingredients you need from supermarkets, markets, or alimentari. Make sure to order all you need at least a week before the 25th and schedule the pick-up date. If you are abroad, you can order the ingredients from Italian delis or markets.

You should also consider purchasing the desserts or ordering them from a local bakery or supermarket – it will make your life easier!

Preparing the food in advance can be a little of a challenge if you decide to host a Christmas Eve Dinner as well. The trick is to meal-prep everything early in the morning! Make sure to bake the pasta al forno and roast the meat. If you opt for tortellini (or similar) in brodo, this should be cooked the day before to have a superb result!

Upon your guests’ arrival, prepare the aperitivo and place the cocktails and the finger foods on the table so you can welcome them the best way. Once everyone is done with the aperitivo, it’s time for the Christmas lunch. Make a friendly toast with your guests and wish them Buon Natale (Merry Christmas), and then begin serving the courses. Feel free to ask your guests to help you in the kitchen and with bringing the food to the table: Christmas is all about being kind to each other and sharing. Plus, Italians spend Christmas with their families, so it’s only normal that everyone participates in the making of the food and the Christmas table.

After hours spent eating, turn up the music and hit the dance floor (of your own living room). To conclude your Christmas lunch, play some fun games with your guests until your bellies empty out and everyone is ready for dinner!

Conclusion

An Italian Christmas dinner offers flavors and traditions of Italy. From antipasti to dolci, each course presents an opportunity to savor the richness of Italian cuisine and create lasting memories with loved ones. Incorporate classic dishes like lasagna, porchetta, and panettone, while also considering regional specialties and personal preferences. Remember to embrace the spirit of togetherness and joy that defines Italian Christmas celebrations.

Add your personal touch to the meal, whether it’s through homemade pasta, a secret family recipe, or creative plating. Accompany your feast with Italian wines, such as Chianti, Barolo, or Prosecco, to enhance the flavors and complete the authentic experience. Buon Natale! (Merry Christmas!)

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