One of the best things about visiting Italy during the festive period is that there are lots of unique traditions including different flavours and customs around the country. Today we've invited the American writer Rick Zullo to speak about Christmas traditions in Sicily.
The Christmas season is a wonderful time to visit Italy and there are many festivities to enjoy throughout the country. Some of these traditions are more or less universal from region to region, but most regions also have their own special traditions that are unique and particular.
Two years ago, my wife and I spent the holidays in her home region of Sicily, touring around the east side of the island during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day. For me, it was very meaningful to learn about the many traditions that she grew up with. And we even discovered a few that were unknown to her, too.
For example, instead of Christmas carolers, in Sicily and throughout the south of Italy, there are men who play la zampogna, which is a type of bagpipe instrument. They go from door to door playing a tune, for which they usually receive a small tip for their efforts.
When we were in the town of Modica, we saw some unusual Christmas ornaments fashioned from fichi di India (prickly pears), a favorite of the Sicilian diet. They were placed throughout the town, decorating the many trees that lined the main street of the historical center.
Speaking of unusual uses of food, in the baroque village of Noto, we happened upon a pastry shop that had created a large presepe (manger scene) entirely out of butter!
Then there are also some traditional dishes which come into prominence this time of year. For example, in Eastern Sicily, Scacciate are often served on Christmas Eve. It’s like a stuffed pizza which is usually filled with cheese, anchovies, olives and onions. It’s easy to make, so it can be served quickly to hungry guests while the main holiday meal is being prepared.
In the area of Palermo they make a similar dish which they call sfincione. The dough is softer and usually done in layers. It also contains cheese, anchovies, and onions, but can also include artichokes.
Many Italian-Americans are surprised to learn that “The Feast of the Seven Fishes” does not exist in Italy. This was invented by the early immigrants to the United States and Canada who were celebrating the abundance that they could afford to enjoy in their new homeland. However, some of the individual dishes can trace origins back to Sicily. Ancidda, or eel, for example, is a traditional dish for the Christmas Eve dinner in the Catania area.
Another Christmas Eve “must” in most Sicilian homes is pasta al forno—pasta baked in the oven. One of the most famous of these is called lasagna cacata, typical of Modica. I’ll let Google Translate explain that one to you.
In Sicily, desserts play a prominent role in the holiday menus. The most famous of these are buccellati, which are circular cakes filled with almonds, pistachios, and dried fruit. Some recipes also include grappa or Marsala wine. And they are large…very large. In fact, the tradition says that the bigger they are, the more luck will be bestowed upon the people eating them.
Across Italy, many Italians attend Midnight mass, which is often accompanied by a presepe vivente, a living nativity scene. Often, the youngest baby in the village is given the privilege of representing baby Jesus. One of the most famous places to watch this tradition is in the Sicilian town of Ispica, Ragusa. Every year, thousands of people flock to this village to gaze at some forty scenes that are presented in the Parco Forza area of the Cava d’Ispica, which is an 8-mile valley that stretches between Ispica and Modica. This area—and its caves—have been inhabited since prehistoric times. The rocky cliffs and hidden catacombs make it the ideal spot to display these annual scenes.
The holidays are a great time to visit Sicily. The crowds will be at their lowest and you’ll rub elbows with the locals who are celebrating the annual traditions which they’ve practiced for generations. At this time of year, you can enjoy all the usual sites while surrounded by the Christmas spirit. Buon Natale e Tanti Auguri per il prossimo anno!
If you find the Christmas season a travel inspiration - why not join Flavours New Year Holidays in Sicily this year and enjoy an extraodrinary week full of festivities and amazing Italian cuisine?
Rick Zullo is an American writer, teacher, and relentless Italophile. He was born in Chicago, raised in Florida, but always dreamt of Italy. After a 17-year career in dentistry, he left the United States to live in Rome where he met his wife. He is now writing a series of eBooks which strive to decipher Italian culture for the English speaking world, which can be found on his Amazon Author Page. Rick maintains his personal blog at rickzullo.com and you can also find him on Facebook and Twitter.