Christmas Traditions in Le Marche Area
What to do and eat in the Piceno area around of Montefiore dell’Aso during the Christmas Festivities
Christmas in Le Marche is always been traditional since the time Emperor Aurelian decreed in 274 A.D that the Nativity Feast should take place on 25 December to coincide with the pagan festivals surrounding the Winter Solstice.
The first nativity scene decorated the village of Greccio, 80km east of Rome and synonymous with 25 December celebrations throughout Italy. In 1223 Giovanni Vellita created one in Le Marche at the behest of St Francis of Assisi who held a mass in front of the nativity scene which established it as the holy symbol of Christmas.
The traditional Christmas in Italy revolves around the church, religious festivals, families and feasting. Indeed no festival is ever complete without the element of food. The Christmas season starts with La Vigilia (the vigil) on the 24 December and finishes with L’Epifania (the Epiphany) on 6th January, it encompasses Natale (Christmas) on the 25th, San Stefano (St Stephens) on the 26th, San Silvestro on New Year’s Eve and Capodanno on New years Day.
In Le Marche, La Vigilia on 24th December has an equal importance to Christmas, and is celebrated with a huge feast of at least 7 courses that usually includes fish. A typical Vigila dinner begins with antipasti of different fish dishes such as smoked salmon, lumache (snails in a tomato sauce), seafood and marinated anchovies.
The first course, primo piatto, consists of pasta or risotto with a fish sauce. Fish is also unmissable for the secondo (second dish). In relation with the territory around Le Marche, the family choose the fish of the tradition: baked trout, langoustines, stoccafisso (stockfish) or baccalá (dried salt-cured cod), eels, red mullet, or, fried whitebait. As traditional contorno (side dish), bitter greens such as Cicoria, especially sauted with oil and garlic represent a perfect choice for Le Marche Christmas Vigilia. In alternative there are seasonal vegetables or contorni such as Roast Fennel or Globe artichokes. As conclusion the unmissable sweet specialities such as torrone (nougat), panettone, pandoro, and exotic fruits plus a glass of Vino Cotto, a smoky flavour, sweet wine originates in Roman times.
Most locals go to mass at midnight to pray, sing carols and celebrate the birth of Jesus. This heart warming night is concluded with socialising, hugging and kissing as friends and neighbours exchange greetings and toast each other in the Piazza of the Church with a local wine or a warming punch, mulled wine or vin brule.
Christmas Day starts slowly and noisy as children wake to open the Christmas Gifts, conscious to have a better second chance with the witch delivery the day of La Befana, the epiphany (6th of Jannuary). All the family, with relatives from other towns, is now around the table for the Christmas lunch. Gorgeous anti pasti of cold meats, cheeses, pickled vegetables etc. give only an idea of the large meal that will follow. The first course is something “in brodo” (in broth) such as meat cappelletti or wild mushroom filled tortellini and then something baked “al forno”, such as vincisgrassi, the famous Le Marche lasagna made with Chicken livers or Cannelloni, . For the main course, there is a range of meats cooked al forno or grilled “alla brace” on an open fire and even fried. Typically le Marche style is the great variety of meat used: leg of lamb, stinco (pork), and chicken, stuffed olives Ascolana Style. The main course is usually accompanied by side plates of roast potatoes and other seasonal vegetables, winter salad leaves. Then again the sweet specialities such as torrone, panettone, pandoro and, if the relatives were generous: Panforte di Siena, Cantuccini, Saporelli…