My Family’s Christmas in Italy

updated May 24, 2019
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(Image credit: Ilva Beretta)

As a Swedish expat living in Italy I get the best of both worlds: Christmas traditions from Sweden and Christmas foods from Italy — could it be any better than that? I have always cherished being a foreigner living abroad because it means I can pick and choose from two cultures.

In my case, it means that Christmas starts the 1st of Advent when the Advent stars light up our windows and the first candle of four is illuminated, whereas the Italian Christmas starts at least one week later on the 8th of December with the Italians bringing out all their decorations at once, Christmas tree and all, while we wait until the evening of the 23rd.

(Image credit: Ilva Beretta)

I used to be quite adamant in my Swedish ways but I have loosened up and now do what I like and even what my children like, thus fusing two traditions into one, our own.

It is important to remember that Italy is a divided country with huge cultural differences between the North and the South, and internal immigration in Italy is quite substantial; this is seen in the multitude of different ways families celebrate Christmas.

My husband comes from Milan in the North and his family celebrates Lombardy Christmas food traditions: capun, ravioli di magro, risotto, bollito, insalata russa, vitello tonnato are just some of the dishes that are placed on the Beretta Christmas table every year.

(Image credit: Ilva Beretta)

I have no say in the dinner part of the menu, but I have a free hand when it comes to making desserts, cakes and sweets; this is where my Swedish heritage is allowed to take over: I bake fruit cakes, Lussekatter, gingerbread cookies, I make knäck and fudge, and there have even been years when I have prepared a more elaborate Italian cake like the Sicilian cassata. But I never dared make a Panettone or Pandoro; they are quite complicated and I never had a homemade one that equals one made by a baker.

Where I live in northern Tuscany, it was the long-held tradition that children received their Christmas gifts on the Eve of Epiphany when the witch La Befana appeared and put toys, oranges, and special treats in the stockings of the good children and coal in those of the naughty ones. Today, children receive their gifts on Christmas Day while la Befana brings only sweets and small tokens and the coal is represented by blackened lumps of sugar. When we moved to Italy, I quickly realized that this was a tradition I had to embrace for the sake of my children who are as Italian as they are Swedish.

(Image credit: Ilva Beretta)

There is a saying here in in Italy that really sums up what the Italian Christmas means: “Natale con i tuoi, Pasqua con chi vuoi” which translates loosely to “Celebrate Christmas with your family but Easter with whom you want.”

Christmas is a time when families reunite and enjoy each others’ company, it is all about being together and sharing meals at the same table, sharing traditions and exchanging gifts; with families spread apart, sharing meals isn’t always possible, but at Christmas everyone, sisters and brothers, aunts and uncles, grandparents and grandchildren, come together for this special celebration.

I live two kinds of Christmases but for me they represent the same things: love.

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