How Italians Celebrate Spring Holidays
Every year, on January 6, my father reminded us: “Pasqua Epifania tutte le feste porta via” (Epiphany carries away all the holidays). In Italy, the holidays don’t end on New Year’s Day (Capodanno): we celebrate Epiphany, or, to be precise, la Befana, the old lady wrapped in a shawl who rides a broomstick and fills children’s socks with candies or pieces of coal. Schools reopen on January 7, and Christmas tree decorations and nativity scene figurines are put away until next year.
The saying my father recited had a second part, which varies based on geographic location. In his native village (north of Rome) it was something like: “poi revè Sant’Antognetto e ne reporta ‘n saccoccetto” (then comes Saint Anthony and brings a pocketful). The feast of Saint Anthony the Abbot, patron saint of domestic animals, is celebrated on January 17.
I never traveled with my father to his village for the feast, but I remember he always brought back some of the local traditional ciambella all’anice, a ring-shaped, lightly sweetened yeasted bread flavored with anise seeds that was first boiled then baked. My father loved to end his meal with a piece of the ciambella dipped in wine.
The pocketful of holidays mentioned in the saying refer to Carnival, a festive period that ends on Martedì grasso (Mardi Gras), the day before Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent. The exception to this is the archdiocese of Milan, which follows a different calendar where Lent starts the following Sunday, so people in Milan and surrounding areas hold the big end-of-Carnival party on Saturday.
Frappe (also called chiacchiere, cenci, bugie, crostoli and other names, depending on the region), strufoli, castagnole, tortelli di Carnevale are just a sample of the traditional sweets made during Carnival. They are all rather rich, fried and doused in honey or sprinkled with powdered vanilla sugar (zucchero vanigliato). Carnival is traditionally a time of indulgence before the somber 40 days of Lent. It is also the time when children and adults dress up in costumes, which can be lavish, as in the famous Carnevale di Venezia.
When my father was a teenager, he and his friends had to make the best of Carnival parties, because dancing was not allowed during Lent. Events held in the local school were easy to attend. A party in another village meant figuring out how to get there and back without public transportation or a car. Often, they walked for miles late at night to get back home.
One feast I looked forward to as a child occurred during Carnival but was not related to it. On January 29 my hometown of Perugia smells sweet due to pastry shops and people baking the traditional torcolo di san Costanzo, a ring-shaped yeasted cake studded with raisins, candied citron and pine nuts, and lightly flavored with anise seeds. Perugia has three patron saints, including Saint Constantius (probably the first bishop of the city). The torcolo di San Costanzo is so popular that some pastry shops bake it year-round. That did not diminish the pleasure of getting our fill of torcolo on its special day.
The 40 days of Lent are an important period in the Catholic Church. By the time I came to experience it, fasting was no longer required and other precepts were relaxed. My family observed meatless Friday (abstinence) pretty regularly during the year, hence doing it during Lent was not much of a change. In Italy we call this “fare vigilia” (abstinence on the eve of a holy day).
My mother did not have specific Lenten dishes in her repertoire, but prepared variations of our usual Friday meals: spaghetti col tonno, which were a must on Christmas Eve, frittata wish seasonal vegetables, like artichokes, or hard-boiled eggs plus canned tuna and mackerel. Every now and then, she prepared baccalà (salt cod) with tomato sauce, prunes and raisins.
There are cookies called quaresimali in an otherwise rather bare landscape, since sweets by definition are to be eschewed during Lent. One exception is zeppole di San Giuseppe, pastries filled with custard that are made on March 19, the day the Catholic Church celebrates Saint Joseph, husband of the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Italy celebrates Father’s Day.
I remember Lent more as a passage, from the bright lights of Christmas and the other winter Holidays to the arrival of spring and the celebration of Easter. But that is a story for next month. In the meantime, enjoy days getting longer!
With a specialty in handmade pasta, Simona provides detailed, accessible tutorials teaching readers to cook like an Italian right from home on Live Like an Italian as well as on her own blog, briciole.