** NEW: Christmas in Umbria – Perugia Christmas Markets, Living Nativity Scenes and More (Free Italy Travel Advice) **

you’re yearning for an <a
World Christmas,
there’s no better place to find it than –ahem–the Old
World.  Though in recent decades the Christmas holidays in<a
Umbria have become more
commercialized and adopted many of the trappings of the Anglo-Saxon
version –decorative lights, trimmed trees and stockings, and Santa
passing on Christmas Eve — enough of the region’s traditions
endure to make spending your winter holiday in Italy’s green
heart (though she sometimes dons a white coat of snow in December)

Scenes of All Kinds in Umbria

Following the venerable Mediterranean custom of stretching out any
holiday for as long as possible, the Christmas season in Umbria, as in
all of Italy, begins with the Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception on
December 8 (a state holiday) and doesn’t officially end until
the Epiphany on January 6 (another state holiday).  Though
some stores and public squares may already show signs of the
approaching season in November, tradition holds that the focal point of
Italian Christmas decorations — <a
or nativity scene — be unveiled
on La
Festa dell’Immacolata
continued with the addition of the baby Jesus on <span
style=”font-style: italic;”>La Vigilia,
or Christmas Eve, and not fully completed until the arrival of the
Three Wise Men’s figurines at the manger on<span
style=”font-style: italic;”> L’Epifania.
You can hardly turn a corner in Umbria during the holidays without
stumbling upon these charming creches, which run from the small, simple
manger scene to the gigantic, extraordinarily detailed rendering of
entire villages and surrounding countryside, complete with running
water fountains, burning cookfires and moving mechanical
figurines.   It seems that every shop
window, church alcove, and piazza has their own version displayed and I
am always surprised and delighted by the hidden creative veins revealed
amongst the most reserved of Umbrian neighbors during the holiday
season, many of whom spend days on end gathering stones, bark, moss,
and fine sand to then construct a rolling landscape populated with tiny
statuettes of shepherds, washerwomen, market hawkers, and the Holy
Family.  Don’t miss these humble, yet humbling,
works of art.


The live nativity pageant (<span
style=”font-style: italic;”>presepe vivente)– reenacted
by costumed actors either in silent tableau or with spoken
dialogue — was first organized in Umbria by St. Francis of
Assisi in the tiny town of <a
in 1223.  In part because of this historical connection to the
tradition, and in part because the tiny medieval stone hill towns of
this region seem built expressly with the aesthetic of a live nativity
pageant in mind, many villages still hold living nativity scenes along
their winding alleys and alcoves after sunset on Christmas Eve,
Christmas Day and the Epiphany.  It is worth bundling yourself
up against the nippy night air to wander these torchlit streets —
often with roasted chestnuts and mulled wine in hand — to see this
tradition still much loved by Umbrians after so many centuries.

and Music

Christmas in Umbria is an unapologetically religious
holiday—this is, after all, a deeply spiritual region in a
deeply Catholic country — which is reflected not only in the
ubiquitous nativity scenes but also in the centrality of religious
services to the Christmas celebration. Christmas
season masses are held on December 8th, Christmas Day, December 26th —
the Feast of Saint Steven and also a holiday — and January
6th.  But of course the most poignant and beautiful Masses are
those at midnight on Christmas Eve.  The festive atmosphere,
seasonal music (many have special Christmas music programs during the
Mass), and pretty evening lighting make it worth the lost sleep.
Even if you are not drawn to Mass, you can enjoy wonderful classical
music in many of the same cathedrals during their Christmas
concert—usually held in the afternoon a few days before or
after the 25th.  Otherwise, if the thought of one more carol
or Handel piece is more than you can bear, shake things up a bit at
either the winter edition of the famed <a
target=”_blank”>Umbria Jazz Festival –held
in Orvieto
each holiday season — or <a
target=”_blank”>Soul Christmas,
Umbria’s Gospel festival organized in the towns on the shores
of Lake Trasimeno.

and Eating Too, Of Course

Though Umbrians concentrate on the holy during the holidays, they
certainly find time for the profane, as well.  Shops do brisk
business, as the traditional exchanges of farm-fresh eggs, home raised
chickens, and bunches of mistletoe cut by hand from the woods and
decorated with red ribbons for good fortune have gradually been
replaced by store-bought gifts.  You can still find real
mistletoe being sold by country women at many village markets (I had
never actually seen fresh mistletoe until I spent my first Christmas in
Umbria), but it is now used primarily to decorate massive hampers
brimming with panettone Christmas cake, torrone nougat with nuts,
bottles of spumante, and local <span
style=”font-style: italic;”>Perugina Baci

|image2|If you’d like to do some gift shopping yourself, head to one
of the local <span
style=”font-style: italic;”>Mercantino di Natale,
or Christmas markets, held in many main piazzas or historic palazzi in
towns across Umbria. These are usually made up of small, wooden stalls
where local artists and artisans show their handicrafts and gastronomic
wares.  The largest in Umbria, <a
style=”font-style: italic;”
href=”http://www.nataleinperugia.net/” target=”_blank”>Natale
in Perugia  held in the
in the provincial
capital, features both local artistic and culinary gifts.  For
other unique gift ideas, consider visiting one of Perugia’s
two historical workshop-museums:  <a
style=”font-style: italic;”
target=”_blank”>Laboratorio Giuditta
Brozzetti  produces
traditional hand-loomed Umbrian fabric in its workshop, the
13th-century <span
style=”font-style: italic;”>San Francesco delle Donne
church; or <a
style=”font-style: italic;”>Laboratorio Moretti-Caselli ,
which is in its 5th generation of stained glass artists who make hand
painted glass windows and panels, hand etched glass, and Tiffany
glass.  Not only will you come away with a one-of-a-kind gift,
but also with an understanding of the rich history and culture of local
Umbrian craftpeople.

Of course, Christmas isn’t Christmas without good food in
Umbria.  The mainstay of the traditional holiday lunch in
Umbria is cappelletti
in brodo
, small meat-filled
tortellini made with sheets of handmade egg pasta stuffed with a mix of
minced chicken, veal, and pork (plus some sausage and <span
style=”font-style: italic;”>mortadella,
just in case it’s not meaty enough) and served in an
orange-infused capon broth.  Umbrian housewives get together
during the long winter evenings weeks before Christmas to keep each
other company while their fingers fly, hand-shaping the hundreds upon
hundreds of these “little hats”– thus the name
cappelletti — they will be serving for Christmas lunch.  In
case you don’t have access to an Umbrian housewife, many
local restaurants feature them on the fixed Christmas Day menu, or they
can be purchased in small specialty pasta shops (avoid the grocery
store variety) and cooked at home.

Any Christmas meal must be finished off with the ubiquitous<span
style=”font-style: italic;”> <a
style=”font-style: italic;”
a traditional Christmas cake originally from <a
but wholeheartedly adopted by the Umbrians.  Commercial
panettone is to handcrafted artisan panettone what fresh basil leaves
picked off a sunny windowsill in the <a
Terre is to that McCormick
Spices dried basil flakes your mom had at the back of pantry in 1978
that was so stale it had turned a sad shade of grey.
Don’t waste your time on supermarket panettone, but spring
for a heavy round loaf from a good pasticceria.  The
traditional recipe calls for candied fruit, but if you are like me
(and, it seems, 98% of the population) and don’t care for
candied fruit, choose a variation with shaved chocolate, raisins, or —
my favorite — dried fig and walnut.  I never understood what
all the fuss over panettone was about until I finally tasted one from
the historic href=”http://www.pasticceriasandri.it” target=”_blank”>Pasticceria
Sandri  in
Perugia.  I ate it on Christmas Eve, but the taste was an


Rebecca Winke

Rebecca and her husband Stefano own and manage <a
href=”http://www.brigolante.com/en” target=”_blank”>the
Brigolante Guest Apartments in Umbria
(paid Dream of Italy<span
style=”font-style: italic;”> newsletter subscribers
can <a
a discount on their stays at
Brigolante. Rebecca also blogs at <a
href=”http://www.brigolante.com/en/blog/” target=”_blank”>Rebecca’s

Top photo by darkmavis, flickr.com and second photo by gengish khan, flickr.com


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