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Learn How the Christmas Season Is Enjoyed in Southern Italy

Every year, millions of people from all around the world choose Sicily to spend their holidays. They are attracted by its climate, breathtaking landscapes, delicious cuisine, history and architecture. Christmas and New Year’s Eve are two of the most important celebrations in Sicily. Although Christmas trees are very common among Sicilian families, the most authentic Sicilian tradition is the Nativity. The Presepio can be found in homes and 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, in the province of Trapani and Caltabellotta, in the province of Agrigento.

Sicily is truly at its best during the Christmas season, especially when it comes to food. Banquets of immense and in some cases legendary dimensions are prepared. The variety of foods seems endless. Whether it is cheese, seafood, meat dishes or pasta, everyone can count on numerous favorites on offer and if you have a sweet tooth, the desserts are beyond compare. Cassata, Cannoli and Torta Setteveli are the most popular. The serious eating begins on Christmas Eve in Sicily.

This living nativity Presepe Vivente di Custonaci is held in Custonaci, near Trapani, brings together craftsmen and artists from all over Sicily for six days between Christmas and Epiphany. The living nativity is recreated annually within the Mangiapane Cave. Leaning against the cave are tiny houses built by shepherds and farmers. The special feature of this nativity is the display of ancient trades and Sicilian scenes. The actors are not actors but real craftsmen who still own and carry out their professions in and around Custonaci. So you will find a cobbler repairing the shoes, the barber cutting hair and women spinning wool, among other crafts.

In the heart of the Abruzzo lies the town of Avezzano near L’Aquila. Here the Christmas markets will be housed in the elegant Piazza Risorgimento. The local food, crafts and items for sale bring together the region’s proud cultural heritage set against a magnificent landscape. The wonderful Christmas village is constructed of stalls made from wood so freshly cut that it still fills the air with the fragrance of an evergreen forest. For many, it is an excellent opportunity to find the ideal gift for a special someone, while enjoying the typical foods of Abruzzo.

In the region of Basilicata, the city of Matera has been named as the European Capital of Culture for 2019. One of the least known of the regions of Italy, the acclaim of Matera has led to an increase in awareness and in visitors to the fascinating area. When it comes to Christmas, at the top of everyone’s list should be a visit to Città dei Sassi. Used as the setting for Mel Gibson’s movie “The Passion,” the ancient setting is like stepping back in time to the moment of the birth of Christ. The magical Christmas atmosphere envelopes you while you stand in front of the stunning image of the lit Sassi at night. Into that wonderful setting is the living Nativity, created with hundreds of actors. This year they will reproduce six scenes: the Annunciation, the Sanhedrin, the Market, the Historic Crafts, the Court of King Herod and the Nativity, set along a walk that ends after more than half a mile.

During the Christmas season, Matera fills up with lights and magic. Events will take place in Il Quartiere Ri-Luce district with special food events featuring the pettolata, an assortment of delicious finger foods commonly found in the area. For everyone who loves to indulge in local foods, an incredible array will be featured in Matera’s Christmas Market in Piazzetta Pascoli, where you can not only eat to your heart’s content, but also enjoy a stunning view of the Sassi.

In Calabria, the Christmas feeling begins at the moment December the 8th arrives. It seems that in every house, people begin to prepare crespelle, which, depending upon what area of the region you are in, it is also known as cuddruriaddri or cullurelli. These are deep-fried rings of doughnuts made with flour, boiled potatoes and yeast. The typical desserts for Christmas dinner are turdilli, which is the Calabrese version of struffoli and scalilli, which are intertwined dough or pretzel shaped fried dough, covered with honey, a white glaze or chocolate.

During the holidays every town and village will proudly display its presepio, but in Calabria, great pride is taken in the creation of Presepe Vivente. Adjacent to the Christmas markets that pop up in the town’s main piazza, residents along the narrow streets become the characters of the story of Jesus’ birth, while craftsmen display their traditional hand-made products. Walking through the towns you will find it to be a heartwarming way to savor the region’s Christmas spirit and get to know the old traditions and crafts, while discovering the many small picturesque Calabrian villages.

In Taranto, along the coast in Puglia, there is a massive parade that ends with an amazing fireworks display. Locals traditionally prepare pettole for the season, actually beginning on November 22 – the Feast of Santa Cecilia. Similar to Neapolitan struffoli, the little balls of fried dough are dusted with sugar, rather than honey. In Calabria there is an ancient tradition called perciavutta, where people taste the year’s new wine and eat grespelle. In the case of the latter, the fried balls are not a sweet, but are filled with anchovies, dry peppers and cauliflower.

In the region of Molise, the beautiful town of Agnone lights up with the ‘Ndocciata on Christmas Eve. Located in the province of Isernia, the ‘Ndocciata in Agnone became famous in 1996 when it was performed in Piazza San Pietro for the Pope. The ‘ndocce are torches, up to 12 feet tall, made from spruce. They are tied tightly at the base and then gradually flare out with dry broom branches inserted to make them thicker and more flammable. They are then joined together with as many as 17 other ‘ndocce in a fan shape.

At dusk on Christmas Eve, the bells of the Church of Saint Anthony begin to ring, signaling hundreds of carriers to light the ‘ndocce and walk down the main street. The men, according to tradition, dress in rustic clothing and the street turns into an enormous river of fire. When the procession ends, the ‘ndocce are burnt in a giant bonfire.