A sampling of Italian holidays

Most Italian holidays center around the Roman Catholic calender. Along with the major celebrations like Christmas and Easter, Italians celebrate their name Saint's day and a special mid-August holiday called Ferragosto.

In all of these holidays, food plays a major role.

I remember throughout my childhood waking up to the sounds and smells of my mom preparing a holiday feast in the kitchen.

Clanging, blending, sizzling. All of these sounds trickled up to my bedroom, mixed with aromas of unimaginable goodness.

Whenever there is to be a gathering of some kind, there is always a buzz of excitement.

Food cooks for hours and hours until it's time for guests to arrive.

Of Italian holidays, the most celebrated is Easter

Since Easter follows the season of Lent, when some sacrifice is expected on everyone's part, and because it marks the rise of Jesus Christ to Heaven, it is celebrated with a lot of special and delicious food.

Lamb is very prominent during these festivities. I remember a somewhat scarring moment in my life when I walked into our garage to find a baby lamb strung up by a wire and dripping blood onto the cement below.

Ick. That may have been the reason I was so hesitant to try lamb for many, many years after that.

Besides lamb, recipes featuring artichokes are also popular, along with a special sweet bread baked into the shape of a lamb (agnello) or dove (colomba).

This sweet bread is also popular at Christmas time, although it comes in a more traditional loaf form. It is called panettone, and is usually given as a gift to family and friends. Some years we received so many they seemed to last for months!

A slice of panettone

Traditionally, Christmas Eve is a banquet of many seafood choices.

Baccala often makes an appearance, as does squid or calamari. There is often also a selection of pasta, usually a spaghetti with red or white fish sauce and/or mussels. And as always, an array of vegetables to choose from.

Another unique Italian holiday stemming from the Christmas season is the Epiphany, celebrated on January 6th. It is literally the 12th day of Christmas, and is a wonderful tradition full of excitement, especially for children.

Similar to the American version of Santa Clause, Italian children put out their shoes on the eve of the Epiphany and wait for La Befana (the witch) to fill them with treats.

Over the years I have received a couple La Befana ornaments to adorn my Christmas tree and it always makes me smile a little to see the little old woman riding her broomstick amongst tiny reindeer and shiny candy canes.

Another holiday around the same time of year is of course New Year's.

Just like in America, Italians celebrate the evening of a new year in much the same way - although instead of dry sparkling champagne many prefer to drink a sweeter version called Asti Spumanti.

I never knew, however, that everyone else around me was not celebrating New Year's Day the same way that my family did.

It is a big event. Little by little my entire extended family trickles into the house and kisses and wishes of a happy new year are passed about. One of the flavors that is ALWAYS incorporated into the first meal of the year is a lentil soup.

Thought to bring prosperity and good fortune for the entire year, the entire bowl must be consumed in order for it to come true! (Some of the kids would often have trouble with this part of the deal!)

Mary's Holiday in Italy is Ferragosto

At the other end of the spectrum of Italian holidays comes one in the very middle of August called Ferragosto.

This summer month is by far the hottest in most parts of Italy and it is the most likely time for many to take vacations and relaxing time off from their jobs.

Ferragosto is celebrated on August 15th, and just like the other holidays I discussed, it is a religious celebration. This day is a tribute to Mary, the mother of Christ, and her ascension into Heaven to join her son.

This day is often full of fun and relaxation that many Italians will celebrate with a picnic or outdoor excursion and end with a traditional festival in their town square.

All of these Italian holidays are fun, full of excitement and of course marked and celebrated through hearty and delicious food!