Christmas with the family


Christmas is the time of the year to rekindle family ties the world over, but this aspect takes a special importance in Italy, where the family identity has always been a strong part of the national culture. Granted, modern life has been diluting this legacy too, but huge family gatherings involving relatives almost unknown otherwise are still pretty common, especially in the south of the country.

In fact, the subject is such a staple that many Italian movies, books and stage shows have been inspired by it through the years – sometimes as bittersweet analysis, sometimes as all-out farces, but always rather good successes thanks to how the topic resonates with the people. There even is a proverbial saying going “Natale con i tuoi, pasqua con chi vuoi” (literally “Christmas with your family, Easter with those you wish to have around”), stressing the often compulsory and unwanted tradition. Most Italian Christmas family gatherings are of course nice, happy events. They generally focus on the grand eve dinner: a long affair with especially rich and expensive dishes, as a celebration of prosperity and a wish for even better luck on the coming year. As explained in other posts, the “Seven fishes” tradition is completely bunk and no actual Italian ever heard of it, but it is true that the Christmas eve dinner often features fish. This is partly because smoked salmon, lobster, caviar and other aquatic delicacies have long been very expensive and thus best reserved for special celebrations, and partly due to the faint echoes of a Catholic tradition of not eating meat on religious holidays.

Beside religious rituals such as completing the presepe (nativity scene) with the baby Jesus figure, or going to the midnight mass, both Christmas eve and the following day are of course filled with family activities. One of the most traditional is to play tombola all together. This is a slight variation on bingo – you don’t go for combinations but for a full table, mostly – that allows everyone to share this play time no matter the age. In some families, especially from the Naples area, tombola is also loosely connected to good luck and divination rituals, as each number is associated with some image of sort (i.e. “77, women’s legs!”) from an ancient book called Smorfia, originally meant to interpret dreams in order to find which numbers to play on your lotto tickets.