Italy has its own folkloric spin on Christian tradition, whereby the Good Witch, or La Befana, arrives at the very end of the Christmas season, on 6 January. According to the legend, she missed the birth of Jesus because she was so busy with her housekeeping duties. Since then she has tried to make up for it by bringing gifts to all the good children (and coal to the brats) on the Feast of the Epiphany, then tidying up each household before moving on to the next one.
As in many other European countries, the spectre of Santa Claus has come to encroach on her territory in recent years, however, certain remote regions continue with their own proudly provincial customs. In rural Abruzzi, for example, bagpipers known as zampognari don sheepskins and cloaks to herald the birthday of the baby Jesus with traditional shepherd music.
On the Cortina d’Ampezzo, deep in the Dolomite Mountains, villagers ski downslope with flaming torches at the stroke of midnight on Christmas Eve, creating a high-speed, high-altitude blaze of festive light across the starry roof of Europe.
Again it’s worth remembering that the modern, unified Italy is a fairly recent concept, comprised of much older states with long memories and localised recipes. Wherever you sit down to dinner on Christmas Eve, the meal will probably be given over to the Feast of Seven Fishes, which will likely involve some combination of octopus, salmon, smelt, clams and baclao (salted cod). Lunch the following day will go on for many hours and a minimum of five courses, at least one of which will involve pasta (baked by Sicilians, for example, into a meaty crust). In Lazio, they’ll roast a lamb with garlic, in Apulia they’ll grill an eel, in Tuscany its chicken liver canapes with capers and anchovies on broth-softened bread.