What's in store with Santa this month? Christmas time descends on Italy again with a sack full of festive surprises. John Bensalhia decks the halls.
It's December, which means that Christmas time is here again. Italy is famed for its superb Christmas markets and events, the best of which are included in this month's line-up. Elsewhere, there are notable saints days and a spot of jazz music to blow away the winter cobwebs.
SAINT BARBARA DAY – Paternò, 3-4-5-11 December
4th December is a timely reminder of the patron saint of firework makers – and in addition the patron saint of artillerymen, firemen, armourers and military engineers. Saint Barbara, an early Christian saint and martyr, is one of the 14 Holy Helpers and is also the patron saint of Paternò in Sicily. The day of the 4th of December is held to honour Saint Barbara and boasts a colourful and celebratory tribute.A special Nativity scene is set up and following its formation, there is a parade with plenty of music, memorable visuals and good cheer.
FESTA DI SAN NICOLA – 6th December
Ho ho ho! What do we know about Santa Claus? He is said to live in a grotto bursting at the seams with gifts. He has a nifty way of getting from A to B thanks to a sledge and a slew of reindeer. And let's not forget the jolly white beard which has graced many a Christmas card and roll of wrapping paper.
It's said that a certain saint inspired the legend of Santa Claus. Saint Nicholas was a 4th century Christian saint and Greek bishop, who was known for his kind heart and generous spirit. It is said that he secretly donated gifts and tokens – for instance, if anyone left shoes out for Saint Nicholas to see, he would leave coins inside.
Saint Nicholas' generous spirit is celebrated on 6th December in Italy. His final resting place was in Bari. One such tradition takes place on this day at the Basilica di San Nicola. The clergy of the basilica extract myrrh which is said to come from the relics in the tomb.
Other celebrations take place to honour Saint Nicholas. On Murano Island, Venice, there is a week-long celebration of the Saint, which includes a memorable procession on the water on the day of the 6th. In Abruzzo, Saint Nicholas is honoured with a procession and also traditional food such as bread, wine and special biscuits known as taralli.
SANT'AMBROGIO DAY – Milan, 7th December
Saint Aurelius Ambrosius is one of the most important players in Milan's history and is now the patron saint of the city. He was both the governor and bishop of Milan, and in addition, he composed many a hymn, studied theology keenly and was a generous benefactor (for example, his possessions were donated to the poor).
Saint Ambrose's many accomplishments are celebrated in Milan on 7th December. It's a mixture of the sombre and the joyous. There is a morning church service in the Basilica, while the innovation known as Oh Bej! Oh Bej! also takes place on this day. Oh Bej! Oh Bej! is a street market that turns the streets around Piazza Sant'Ambrogio into a buzzing hive of activity. The crowds flock to sample a wide selection of crafts, antiques as well as food and drink. Pancakes, meats, chestnuts, sweets and cheeses are available to the crowds in addition to a warming drink of mulled wine.
FEAST DAY OF THE IMMACULATE CONCEPTION – 8th December
The Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception is traditionally held on 8th December throughout Italy. It was officially declared a Feast Day by Pius IX in 1854.
Italy celebrates this day in a number of ways. In Rome, floral wreaths are laid at a special ceremony at the Spanish Steps. In Apulia, a special delicacy is eaten called pettole. Pettole is seasoned and fried bread – one of the key ingredients is cooked wine, Vincotto, which adds to the uniquely seasoned flavour.
One of the most common elements of this day is the bonfire. Areas such as Abruzzo mark the day with a bonfire and songs. In the Atri area, people hold on to large torches known as faugini in a procession that makes its way to the town's cathedral for a special ceremony. In Umbria, Fires of the Arrival are lit. The traditional function of the bonfire on this day has been interpreted in a number of ways. From the heat to warm up the Madonna to the banishment of negativity or sin through to the function of warming the clothes of Jesus, the fires are a common element of this dignified and dedicated day.
SAINT LUCIA DAY – 13th December
Saint Lucy (or Lucia), the Christian martyr and patron saint of Syracuse, is honoured on the 13thDecember. One of the common elements linked with this day is the traditional consumption of grain. This ties in with the legend that ships bearing grain entered the harbour and miraculously ended the famine on the feast day. Grain dishes are traditionally eaten on this day such as a savoury soup or a dish called Cuccia, which comprises boiled wheat, berries, ricotta and honey.
Another notable tradition is held in areas of North East Italy (such as Veneto and Trentino) in which children leave coffee for the spirit of Saint Lucy on the night of the 12th December. In addition, the youngsters can also leave a carrot for her donkey and a glass of wine for her escort, Castaldo. As a reward (and if the children have been good), gifts are left for delighted youngsters the next morning.
In Syracuse itself, a parade marks the transportation of a large statue of the Saint to the Church of Santa Lucia. The statue is made of silver and weighs a hefty 90 kilos, requiring around 60 men to bear the load. Fireworks and displays carry on the celebrations, honouring the legendary Saint Lucy.
UMBRIA JAZZ WINTER FESTIVAL – Orvieto, 27th December 2014 - 1st January 2015
It's 50 years since John Coltrane recorded his seminal jazz album, A Love Supreme. Coltrane recorded the four-part suite on 9th December 1964 for release in the early part of the following year.
Appropriately, this year's Umbria Jazz Winter Festival celebrates the 50th birthday of this classic with a tribute from saxophonists Joe Lavono and Chris Potter and their quintet. It's one of the many treats for jazz fans at this year's festival, which promises to be a strong and diverse selection of the most talented musicians around.
Among the line up are Patrick Williams and The Blues Express, Cynthia Bland and The Home Road Band, Giovanni Guidi's Rebel Band and the Prince of New Orleans himself, Davell Crawford and his R&B Band. There will also be a unique tribute to the legendary Frank Zappa (whose albums include Apostrophe, Lumpy Gravy and Joe's Garage) by Quintorigo and Roberto Gatto.
If you're feeling the winter blues, then nothing blows them away like a bit of jazz music. This year's superb line-up promises to achieve that in tuneful and unique style. A must for all fans of this genre.
Stay tuned for our round-up of Christmas markets around Italy to check out in December!