Christmas gets bigger every year, so much so that we can’t fit everything into just one month. Decorations come out earlier and earlier, and we’re hardly able to finish our Thanksgiving turkeys before those Christmas parties start rolling out. But amidst all the hype, there are also those moments, some may even be categorized as magical, that make the season special. I’d like to share a few characteristic images of Calabria at Christmas.
ORANGES IN CALABRIA AT CHRISTMAS
Growing up in New Jersey, despite its “Garden State” nickname, I didn’t give much thought to seasons and food, other than perhaps the much praised Jersey corn and Jersey tomatoes. I do recall scratching my head, however, when reading a book or seeing an old film in which a single orange as a Christmas gift was received with great joy, whether by a little girl in a fur-trimmed jacket or one dressed in tatters. I remember thinking that I wouldn’t have exchanged my pile of presents for that one orange.
Back in a time when transportation wasn’t what it is today and grocery stores weren’t overflowing with fruit out of cold storage or in season somewhere else, receiving even a semblance of an orange must have been a rare treat. But nowadays I wonder, what wouldn’t I give for a truly spectacular orange? And perhaps that’s why I’m so taken with fruit for sale that still has an association with the tree from which it has been plucked.
Brightly pigmented clementines and mandarin oranges with their stems and beautiful green leaves attached are like a magnet in Italian markets. The textures and colors can’t be matched. The fresh juice bursts in your mouth. In Calabria, a gift basket of these early citruses—oranges, mandarins, clementines and lemons with a piece of the branch and leaves intact—is very gladly received.
Continuing through the winter, my favorite orange in Calabria is the Tarocco, a type of blood orange that is only slightly tinged with red. Succulent hardly begins to describe the juice in Tarocco oranges, which will quickly bathe your forearms down to your elbows even when you’re careful.
A FEW CULINARY TREATS IN CALABRIA AT CHRISTMAS
Scrumptious fried creations are also Calabrian classics at Christmastime. My favorite goes by countless names, depending on where you’re eating them: Crispelle, grispelle, zeppole, zippuli, cullurielli, cuddrurieddri, to rattle off a few. Delicious however they’re called, they make their first seasonal appearance at the Festa dell’Immacolata Concezione or the Festival of the Immaculate Conception on December 8th, a national holiday in Italy.
The dough consists of flour, water, yeast and a pinch of salt. Many recipes also include boiled potatoes in the mix. Crispelle are round or ring-shaped, and can be plain or filled with a host of ingredients. My first choice is anchovies, but I wouldn’t turn down cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, olives or ‘nduja, a very spicy, spreadable salami. They are deep-fried, eaten as appetizers and washed down with a glass of the local red wine.
The dessert version is made the same, but without a filling. Dipped in honey and rolled in sugar or cinnamon, sweet crispelle are finger-licking good.
In the Province of Reggio Calabria, petrali are popular Christmas cookies. The basic recipe calls for a shortbread dough in the shape of a half-moon that is filled with a mixture of dried figs, walnuts, almonds and orange/mandarin zest, all chopped and soaked in vino cotto (cooked wine) and coffee. They’re finished with an egg wash and beads of colored sugar or chocolate.
I have a fond memory of being presented with a little tray of these beautiful petrali, along with a pastry in the shape of a Christmas tree dedicated to me. The mastro pasticciere (pastry chef) had a little trouble with my name, as most Italians do. I’m often Carmen, Carolina, Cara or Caterina, as the “k” isn’t in the Italian alphabet, not to mention the difficulty of the swallowed “r” of the English language. Nevertheless, it was the delightful thought that counted.
DECKING THE HALLS IN CALABRIA AT CHRISTMAS
The holidays always feel more festive amidst cheerful surroundings, and Italians like Christmas decorations as much as anyone, or perhaps more than most. Lights are strung along main streets of the smallest of towns, no matter the struggling budgets. Christmas is a priority.
This important season spills over into churches all year long. I was particularly taken with a 16th-century representation of the Epiphany on an altar of Carrara marble in St. Mark’s Church in the town of Seminara. The church was under renovation and didn’t look like much from the outside, so perhaps the surprise of an interior with great potential and several exquisite carvings made me take note.
I also enjoy the presepe or nativity scene in its many forms and never tire of the allure. The Neapolitan style creche with tableaus from everyday life is particularly endearing.
A lot of care and energy goes into Christmas. The holiday seems to be in a constant state of expansion. Are the decorations bigger, better and more beautiful this year? Bigger? Maybe. Better and more beautiful? No, but perhaps those twinkling lights actually do enhance the passeggiata (walk), which is so much a part of Italian communities.
The festive illumination along the old streets creates an added intimacy to this old-school form of socialization. And in a world caught up in an out-of-control cycle of mass aggrandizement, it’s good to remember that there are still the simple things in life. In Calabria at Christmas, an orange with a leaf attached, a fried dough ball with a treat inside and a nativity scene portraying Uncle Tony’s butcher shop to the left of the Holy Family, can still give that magic.
These are just a few images of Christmas in Calabria. Do you have any special holiday reflections that hearken back to the simpler things of life? Tell us about it in the comments below.
More on Christmas in Calabria in Calabria: The Other Italy, my non-fiction book about daily life, history, culture, art, food and society in this fascinating southern Italian region.
More on Christmas in Italy in my posts Away in the Manger in Italy and Christmas Eve at St. Peter’s. Read about other food often eaten in Calabria at Christmastime in Calabrian Figs: A Christmas Treat from the Ancients and Le Frittole: The Pig Boil, Calabrian Style.
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