One of the best things about travelling to new places is finding out about other cultures, and their different celebrations. Winter festivals around the world are particularly exciting. There’s something about all that snow and ice that brings out people’s creativity, and all the good comfort food. Winter traditions often feature heavy, sweet and tasty morsels, like in the Netherlands, where stalls selling poffertjes become more plentiful. Some winter traditions can also seem fairly brutal to our modern sensibilities, like the eating of boiled sheep’s heads in Norway, or the burning of the goat in Gävle, Sweden (luckily, the goat is a straw one these days….)
Last year we spent Christmas in the Italian Alps. Here are a few of the December traditions that I found out about while I was there. Do you know of any more?
What is Yule in Italy?
Italy is a predominantly Christian country, and its December traditions centre around the Nativity, the birth of Jesus Christ. But some are descended from Nordic customs, like Yule. In Italy the Yule ritual of burning a large piece of wood over Christmas is common. Families choose a log (the ceppo), which is big enough to burn all night through from Christmas Eve through to Boxing Day. Some families burn a ceppo for each child in the family.
Skiing and sauna
Alpine Italians love to ski. That was clear from the number of people who joined us on the slopes from Boxing Day onwards, when everyone in the country was on their Winter holidays. We were based at Passo Tonale, on the Lombardy-Trentino border and Tiziano, our ski instructor, told us that people from Milan, Verona and Como liked to come to the resort just for the weekend. While were were there, a few of the small villages nearby held torchlit ski processions, to celebrate the opening of the season. Watching tens of glowing lights, zipping down the mountain towards us, was a toe-tingling experience.
After the skiing, there is, of course, the sauna. Most Italian ski resorts boast at least one sauna. At Passo Tonale, our Italian mountain resort, the 3,000m high Presena glacier had a sauna at a mid-way station – so you could literally have a sauna on the glacier. How cool is that?
Pannetone and pandoro
Pannetone is a sweet, yeasty bread loaf with dried fruit. Much lighter and more fluffy than the fruit cake traditionally eaten at Christmas in the UK, the festive pannetone often comes with a twist. For our Italian Christmas feast, we had a choice of pistachio, chocolate and cream-filled versions, as well as the traditional fruit. I might just have sampled them all…..
Pandoro is another delicacy eaten at Christmas in the Italian Alps. Like pannetone it’s a tall cake, but it is star-shaped, with a delicate yellow texture inside. When we ate it last Christmas, it was delicious. If it’s possible to fall in love with a cake, I did. So much so that I’ve been checking out cheap Teletextholidays.co.uk deals on trips to Venice, just down the road from Verona, the home of Pandoro. I want to go!
The Alpine region is famed for its Christmas markets, and Italy is no exception. In markets in the Alpine villages you’ll usually find local handicrafts, and food and drink, like mountain cheese and speck (a type of dried meat). These markets are great places to pick up souvenirs, or even just to take a festive stroll, with the scent of warm spiced wine hanging in the air. Christmas markets in the Alps run later in the year than those in the UK. Most remain open until at least Epiphany (January 5). Our local market in the Alps last year, at Temu, didn’t even open until December 29.
Befana, or the Christmas Witch, is said to deliver presents to Italian children on the eve of Epiphany (January 5). Like Father Christmas, she comes down the chimney; unlike Santa, though, she’s sometimes believed to sweep the floors of houses she visits, to clear away the problems of the year. And the presents she gives were originally intended for the Baby Jesus. Some versions of the story say that the three Wise Men invited her along to see Jesus after she kindly gave them shelter, but she said she first needed to finish her housework. When she left on her broomstick to take her presents to Jesus, she couldn’t find him – and now she flies round, searching, and giving gifts to mortal children instead.
So despite her haggard appearance, she’s a benevolent sprite really.
Unlike the Krampus. This terrifying monster is seen on processions through a different part of Trentino from where we stayed. I’m still desperate to see a mass Krampus march through the mountains. Have you seen one? Or do you know of any other Winter traditions, from the Alps or elsewhere, that are different to those in the UK or US? Do let me know, in the comments below.
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