From Babbo Natale to a demon from folklore called Krampus, here’s how we celebrate Christmas in the province of Udine.
The festive season is celebrated in a very special way in our Friuli Venezia Giulia region. As well as enjoying all the traditional Italian merriments we have a few that are particularly special to us too.
You may not have heard of a character called the Krampus, but he’s someone we know very well, especially in the beautiful town of Tarvisio, in the north-eastern corner of our region.
Each year, on 5 December, the people of the town take part in a cheerful and colourful torch-lit procession to celebrate the Feast of St Nicholas, as he walks the town in his red-and-white garments and long white beard, distributing sweets to children.
This is when you’ll also meet the Krampus. Hairy and horned, he has cloven hooves and fangs. Half-demon and half-goat he carries chains, and wears cow bells to announce his arrival and there’s always more than one Krampus.
He may sound frightening to some, and, indeed, as one of the companions of kindly and generous Saint Nicholas, the Krampus, by contrast, is more than happy to chase and punish children who have misbehaved! But it wouldn’t be Christmas in the north of our region without an appearance from this figure from folklore.
A few days later, on 8 December, we celebrate the traditional start of the Christmas season in Italy, when we mark the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, or as it’s known, Immacolata, by putting up our decorations.
Since it’s a national holiday, banks and many workplaces are closed, giving us the opportunity to attend church or do a bit of shopping at a local Christmas market.
While at the market, we might browse and buy some food for the Christmas table. While the traditional Panettone will grace many tables across Italy, in our Friuli Venezia Giulia region we also enjoy the Gubana cake. A delicious treat, the Gubana is filled with pine nuts, sultanas and crushed walnuts and it’s our custom to pour local grappa or plum brandy over it before eating.
And when you buy a festive poinsettia plant for your home during the Christmas season, did you know that this is tradition originates in Italy too? The red flowers of the Stella di Natale (poinsettia) are said to symbolise the blood of Christ while the white flowers represent his purity.
Before long, it’s time for children to hang up their stockings for Father Christmas on Christmas Eve. In Italy, we know him as Babbo Natale, and while he may bring some gifts for children on Christmas Eve, it isn’t until Epiphany on 6 January that we really celebrate gift-giving – but more on that later!
Christmas Eve is also the time when families get together for an evening meal, which can often run to six or seven courses. Since Christmas is a religious festival in Italy, we tend to avoid eating meat on Christmas Eve, so fish and vegetables are popular, and the meal can run quite late, until it’s time to go to Midnight Mass at least.
As with cultures all over the world, Christmas Day is a family affair, with lots of food and fun, and the celebration of food will continue until January. But first, we must welcome in the New Year when it’s tradition to eat pork at midnight, to represent abundance and prosperity for the coming year. And having some Prosciutto di San Daniele to hand always helps too!
One of our biggest celebrations comes in the first week of January, however, at Epiphany, when an old lady called La Befana brings presents to children across Italy. Traditionally, our gift-giving is done on 6 January, and La Befana leaves presents in children’s stockings – as long as they’ve been well-behaved throughout the year, of course!
Epiphany is also the time of the Pignarûl, one of the oldest rituals in Friuli. With origins dating back to pre-Christian times, it is thought to be connected to the worship of Belenus, the Celtic Sun God.
As evening falls and darkness begins to chase away the light, hundreds of bonfires are lit at sunset on 5 January, but more frequently on 6 January, all over Friuli to mark the winter solstice.
Entire communities come together to mark the occasion, drink mulled wine and sing or dance, and it is said that you can tell the future by the direction in which the smoke of the bonfires blows – if it goes to the west it’s best to seek your fortunes elsewhere in the world, as the year will be bad in the region, but if it blows to the east then take your bag to market, as it will be a good year!
One of the biggest bonfires can be found in the town of Tarcento, where on the evening of 6 January, the Pignarûl Grant is lit near the remains of the medieval castle there, with thousands of people attending.
So, you see, Christmas isn’t just Christmas in Friuli Venezia Giulia – there’s a world of history, tradition, myths and legends to be enjoyed.
Nobody does the festive season like we Friulians!