Calabria at Christmas

Reflection: Images of Calabria at Christmas

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. 


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.

Calabrian citrus, Calabria at Christmas

Clementines in Calabria

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.

Tarocco, Calabria at Christmas

Tarocco Orange Tree in Calabria


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.

Calabria at Christmas

Crispelle, zeppole, zippuli…

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.

Italian Christmas Cookies

Petrali in Reggio Calabria at Christmas

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.

Calabria at Christmas

Petrali with a Christmas Tree – Calabrian Pastries 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.

Calabria at Christmas

The north end of Corso Garibaldi in Reggio Calabria decorated for Christmas

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.

Chiesa San Marco, Seminara, Calabria

16th-century Marble altar of the Epiphany in Seminara, Calabria

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.

Calabria at Christmas

Detail of a Presepe or Nativity Scene in Calabria at Christmas

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.

Calabria at Christmas

Corso Garibaldi in Reggio Calabria at Christmastime

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.

Calabria at Christmas

Buon Natale from the Archeological Museum in Reggio Calabria

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 Italymy non-fiction book about daily life, history, culture, art, food and society in this fascinating southern Italian region.Italy travel book

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.

Thinking of visiting Calabria? Check out the itinerary of my Calabria tour with Karen’s Travel LLC!Calabria book

“Like” Calabria: The Other Italy’s Facebook page  and follow me on Karen’s Instagram and Karen’s Twitter for more beautiful pictures and information.

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Comments 14

    I have a clementine EVERY morning ……… and I would LOVE to have your Calabrian Clementines available in PA!! The best availabe to us are from Morocco, & they are only available here, in OUR winter season. 😢
    See you SOON!! 😄🎄

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      Really? Sorry to hear that. On the west coast we have clementines from California. Citrus is certainly refreshing in the morning, though. Merry Christmas!

  2. Does Italy celebrate a Thanksgiving Day like we do? Maybe I miss-read that part at the beginning. I thought the Day was purely ours.

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  3. Ah yes, clementines and oranges at Christmas! My mother used to tell me that, when she was a kid, citrus fruits were not common here in the Northern part of the country. So they used to put a couples of clementines/oranges inside “calza della Befana” on Jan. 6th. and it was like receiving a treasure! I guess nowadays we take too many things for granted!

    Buone Feste ❤

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  4. Thanks, Karen, and buona festa. Two other winter and Christmas treats for us were tangerines and fennel (both way seasonal back in the day in NY, and when the season was gone, so were they), roasted chestnuts, and you didn’t mention, figs–stuffed with walnuts, or backed, in many ways. And always the eternal tall plate of zippuli c’alici or plain or sweetened with honey. On our Brooklyn block, older friends and cumpari would stop by and exchange…zippuli.

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      Thank you for your memories, Robert. I remember my first Christmas dinner in Calabria where a shredded fennel salad was served. I thought it was delicious, but the man of the house was apparently looking for a more substantial vegetable and joked that he would rather not eat his vegetables through a straw. And so many traditional recipes with figs. But there’s nothing like hot zippuli to put you in the spirit!

  5. Beautiful photos! When i left Italia Nov 14th, they had just started assembling l’illuminazioni, so i didn’t get to see them. We called the fried dough balls pettole in Puglia and my Mamma usually adds potato and raisins. My parents tell me they used to get oranges and torrone in their stockings from La Befana on Jan 6th, so those oranges were very special! Tanti auguri per un Buonissimo Natale Carol! Cristina

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      Ha, ha, and thanks, Cristina. Mmm… I could definitely go for the raisins with a little honey on the outside. Torroni are also very traditional in Calabria. There’s clearly no end to the Italian food memories. Signing off to get something to eat, “Carol”

  6. My fathers family, from Calabria, but immigrated to US in 1900’s, have made this cookie every Christmas. We were told the name of the cookie is (sp?) scouela or skowella. It is a dough requiring lots of eggs and egg whites, hand kneading and then rolled into a pretzel like shape and then fried to a golden brown. My Grandmother used honey or a glaze with whiskey to coat them. We love them and look forward to them every Christmas. We would love more information on them if you are at all familiar.

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      Could you perhaps be describing a Christmas cookie called scalille or scaliddre that look twisted and are meant to represent little scale or stairs? Check out this link to a description with photos on Nonna’s house blog, which also has a further link to the specific recipe. They look crispy and delicious.

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