As Italy begins its Christmas Season, this week we visit some of the provinces of the country’s largest island – Sicily. Every year, millions of people from all around the world choose Sicily to spend their holidays attracted by its climate, breathtaking landscapes, delicious cuisine, history and architecture. Due to its central position in the Mediterranean Sea, Sicilian culture, language and traditions may have begun as a melting pot, but have become unique and all its own.
Christmas and New Year’s Eve are two of the most important celebrations in Sicily. Christmas celebrations begin on the 8th of December, when families start decorating their homes with the Christmas tree and the Nativity. Although Christmas trees are nowadays very common among Italian and Sicilian families, the most authentic Sicilian tradition is the Nativity. The Presepe can be found in most homes and the vast majority of churches and squares. One of the most traditional versions of the nativity scene on the island is the “Presepe Vivente” in which locals dress in costumes of the Holy Family, shepherds and the Magi. Such performances take place until the Epiphany on January 6, often in small towns and villages. Two of the most beautiful ones are held in Custonaci and Caltabellotta.
Cities decorate for the joyous season. Posh streets and traditional markets, as well as shops and restaurants are decorated with lights and sparkling ornaments. After the shopping session, locals like to meet up in cafes and restaurants. Some prefer a glass of wine on a terrace, while others prefer going for a passeggiata along the the main street. For those in the center of the island, such as beautiful Enna, located at the top of a 3,000 foot tall mountain, it is common to visit friends, play tombola, eat dried fruits and talk until late before and after Midnight Mass.
Gastronomically speaking, Sicily is at its best during the Christmas season. Banquets of legendary dimensions are prepared where endless varieties of cheese, meat, pasta, seafood and desserts are served. Cassata, Cannoli and Torta Setteveli are the most popular desserts and every Sicilian with a sweet tooth finds themselves in heaven. The serious eating begins on Christmas Eve, with the feast of the seven fishes and traditional dishes fill the tavola of families throughout the provinces. After the feast, as the hours have gone by, families will make their way to church for Midnight Mass to celebrate the birth of our Lord. Later those who are still in the joyous spirit may even open presents, rather than waiting until the morning. Christmas Day will be celebrated with another feast, often a porchetta roast is prepared such as you will find in Ragusa, where the traditional culinary delights reach high levels of excellence.
One week later it is time for the cenone, the feast to celebrate the New Year. This is the chance for every family member to show off his or her culinary abilities with the traditional eating of the lentils with pork, often sausage. Legend has it that it brings good health in the New Year. It is often eaten while going down a set of stairs. After dinner families begin to hail in the New Year after the final countdown with the opening of one or more bottles of prosecco.
Salute, as they meet up with friends in piazzas to celebrate till the morning with music, shows and concerts. The final act of the Christmas celebrations takes place on the Epiphany, when children wait for the arrival of La Befana, the witch who distributes sweets and small gifts to children who have been good and coal to those who have not.