How to celebrate Christmas like a Calabrian
Tired of turkey and tinsel? For a Christmas to remember, escape to Calabria, where a feast of festive treats awaits. Buon Natale!
No mere summer fling, the sun-drenched ‘toe’ to Italy’s boot is an unmissable stop in winter, too, being steeped in local traditions that have persisted for generations. With its seasonal delicacies, enchanting cultural performances and jewel-like villages festooned with twinkling lights, yuletide celebrations in this southern Italian region are imbued with folklore and mysticism, and communities, families and visitors alike delight in coming together to experience them.
Revel in local folklore and festive traditions
Calabria is known for its charming living nativity scenes at Christmas, often with friendly animals in tow. The sight of people of all ages dressed as farmers, shepherds, artisans and other characters representing the story of the birth of Jesus can be enjoyed from the run up to Christmas until the Epiphany in many municipalities. Among the most famous are those in Caria (in Vibo Valentia), Davoli (Catanzaro), Cannitello (Reggio Calabria) and Panettieri (Cosenza), which attract thousands every year.
There is also no shortage of music in Calabrian towns and villages during the festive period, when groups of musicians and friends gather in the streets to perform local carols in a ritual known as the strina. These folkloric winter songs are accompanied by the bashing of a murtali or ammaccasali, a tool used to pound salt, along with a bagpipe, tambourine and accordion. The tradition harks back to ancient times when musicians would go door to door to announce the birth of Jesus and play in exchange for eggs, cheese, cold cuts and wine. Today the strina continues to elevate the joyful atmosphere in Calabria’s town centres.
Indulge in 13 decadent dishes
According to Calabrian tradition, on 24 December, no fewer than 13 dishes must be served: 13, of course, referring to the number of Apostles (plus Jesus) at the Last Supper.
Though the nature of the 13 dishes presented vary from family table to table, there are some non-negotiables. The first course is invariably pasta ca’ muddica, an utterly delicious anchovy and breadcrumb pasta that honours simple peasant cuisines of the past. The second course will be salt cod or baccalà, usually accompanied by peppers, black olives, potatoes and chilli. Typically, a dish of piping hot fried seafood is also served alongside, such as fritters or crispelle.
Christmas sweets are also hugely popular throughout the region, with each village proudly preparing them to their own unique recipe and shape. In mountain areas, the pitta ’mpigliata (or the Crotonese variant pitta ’nchiusa), a loaf of honeyed short pastry rolled on itself and filled with candied fruit and sultanas, is ubiquitous. Traditional local biscuits are also baked with abandon in preparation for the feasts: from ciciriati in the Vibonese and Reggio Calabria areas, to susumelle, oval-shaped biscuits made from a cocoa and a spiced cinnamon dough that are popular in the Crotone area.
Marvel at Tropea’s charming Christmas lights
For the ultimate festive experience, head to the jewel in the crown of the Calabrian coast, Tropea, a pastel-coloured clifftop village. Recently voted one of the most beautiful places in Italy, every Christmas its historic centre is transformed into an enchanted winter wonderland thanks to a series of increasingly renowned artistic illuminations throughout the town (opening image).
From glittering moons and stars to toy soldiers, sparkling garlands and huge Santas, beautiful twinkling lights cast the streets and alleyways with a magical glow to the delight of visitors young and old. With buzzing restaurants, an ice rink and bustling markets to boot, Tropea is a must-visit for a perfect Calabrian Christmas escape.
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