A Love Letter to Christmas in Italy (and the Family Meal that Starts the Season)

The Christmas season in Rome is the stuff of legends.

I’ve always loved the holidays back at home, but the Italians manage to take it to a whole new level, with seven giorni di festa throughout the months of December and January. Every single Catholic holiday is celebrated with enormous quantities of pasta, roasted meats, local wines and the biggest variety of chocolate, nuts and dried fruits you could imagine. 

And this becomes even more apparent when you’re celebrating in someone’s home, the traditional way, like I do with my in-laws here in Rome. December 8, or the feast of the Immaculate Conception, is one of my favorite holidays of the year. It’s the start of this magical season and when you finally start decorating and prepping your home (and kitchen) for Christmas. 

Christmas in Italy unofficially kicks off with a long, leisurely family meal on December 8. Here's how our Rome operations manager, Abbie, celebrates with her adopted Italian family.

Decking the halls, Italian style

In my apartment, decorating is relatively simple. We get the cardboard box full of trinkets, lights, our fake Christmas tree and ornaments that my mother-in-law gifted us (because #ItalianMoms) and we put them up around the house. Maybe I make cookies or some other American-style dessert (I love surprising the Italians in my life with weird American Thanksgiving combinations like pumpkin pie and sweet potatoes) but my contribution is always very minimal, much to the chagrin of all the Italian mammas out there. 

But it’s in the homes of the real Italians that you see how special this day is for families all over Italy. Whereas in the U.S., we usually put up our Christmas trees anytime after Thanksgiving, everyone here does theirs the weekend of December 8. You’ll see all of the decorations on the streets in Rome light up, garlands are suddenly everywhere, we switch out the coffee for cioccolato caldo (delicious Italian hot chocolate) and with lunch on the Immaculate Conception, we start preparing our stomachs for the marathon that is Christmas. 

A deli decorated for Christmas in Italy
Even the smallest shops, like this salumeria near the Pantheon, get into the spirit. Photo credit: Abbie Stark

The family meal that marks the start of Christmas

Lunch on the 8th starts with antipasti, like some juicy black olives with fragrant oranges scattered throughout the dish, marinated eel that engenders such strong love-or-hate feelings and of course, an abundant tagliere full of local cured meats and cheeses. 

Antipasti platter of olives, marinated artichokes and eel
A typical antipasti platter piled high with olives, marinated artichokes and eel. Photo credit: Abbie Stark

Next up is a plate full of handmade pasta, usually tagliolini or fettuccine, which has been draped over every surface in the house since 8 a.m. On holidays, my mother-in-law is up around 7 to put the roast in the oven and start prepping the pasta, which takes hours to make, minutes to boil, and seconds to devour. One of her go-to dishes is fettuccine al ragu’, homemade thick fettuccine noodles. She kneads the flour and egg mixture on her marble tabletop and puts it through the pasta machine at least six times until it all comes together in one smooth noodle.

These are then paired with her incredible homemade Bolognese sauce. Supremely simple, this ragu is made with a base of olive oil, ground beef and pork, the freshest local tomato puree that we stockpile and a bundle of white onion, celery and carrot, Roman-style. 

A traditional Italian ragu sauce.
Abbie’s mother-in-law’s famous ragu. Photo credit: Abbie Stark

When the fettuccine comes out of the kitchen on the biggest platter you’ve ever seen in your life, everyone doubts that we’ll finish it, but after one lunch and with enough left over for lunch the next day, the kilos of fresh pasta are totally demolished. 

As her secondo, some sort of slow-roasted beef or lamb usually makes an appearance, paired with the yummiest oven-roasted potato wedges you’ve ever tried, Roman-style stewed artichokes, and the freshest puntarelle (raw chicory served with olive oil, red wine vinegar, whole garlic cloves and anchovies) that serves as the perfect counterpart to all of the other rich dishes. 

Veal roast roll up, a typical meat course during Christmas in Italy
This veal roast roll up is a typical second course. Photo credit: Abbie Stark

Dessert is, of course, incredible, and involves breaking out 15-odd types of chocolates, torrone, and Christmas cakes like panettone or pandoro, which symbolize the holiday season. Much of this is also left over, but there’s no rush to finish as we have six more holiday occasions to enjoy it. 

Desserts after a typical Roman meal: two cakes and fresh fruit
When dessert consists of chocolate and ricotta cake, Sacher cake and fresh fruit, you know you have to save room. (We don’t know how, but somehow you do.) Photo credit: Abbie Stark

After hearty pours of red wine like cesanese or sangiovese, grapes local to the Lazio region, we switch over to the special Christmas Champagne that my mother-in-law, who doesn’t drink any other type of alcohol, waits all year for. Other Italian families will finish up with grappa, amaro or vin santo, passing it around until the bottle’s empty. 

After everything is cleared off the table and we’re all uncomfortably full, a post-lunch caffe’ is necessary to help digest the enormous meal and in no way impedes the impressive post-Italian-meal nap that I dream about all year. 

December 8 is an opportunity for everyone to come together and enjoy some of our favorite dishes, with family around the table and while looking forward to one of the most magical times of year. And I’m so grateful that I found myself in a culture where food and wine are the biggest ways of expressing happiness, festivity and love. 

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