For those of us born and raised in northern climes, celebrating Christmas without a thick layer of snow on the ground is a bit disheartening. Santa and his reindeer, sleigh and poofy red costume would look ridiculous cruising around Palermo. But there’s no doubt that Christmas in Sicily is every bit the festive season that we enjoy back home.
Palermo is usually an indifferent, hectic place, where you’re more likely to get a shoulder-check than a friendly smile from people on the sidewalks. But that changes during Christmas. During the holidays, strangers greet you with a “Buon Natale” or even a labored attempt at “Merry Christmas”. Streets are decorated with lights, storefronts with trees, and a joyful energy is palpable in the markets and shops.
December 24th is a day of feasting in Sicily, when families gather around tables even more over-flowing with food than normal. Children are allowed to rip open presents after the Christmas Eve dinner, avoiding the sleepless night of aching anticipation that we unlucky Americans endure. Christmas Day is quiet; most people use the daylight hours for a walk around town, and to meet up with neighbors and friends, before retiring with their families. The 26th is a national holiday in Italy, and everything stays closed until the 27th, when normal life resumes again.
Kids only have to wait a few more days for their next treat. Santa Claus has ceded dominion over Sicily to La Befana: an ugly witch who flies on a broom and climbs through chimneys to deliver candy to good children, and coal to the brats. According to legend, she was a housekeeper near Bethlehem who went mad with grief after losing her only child. When Jesus was born, she recognized his goodness and gifted him with armfuls of candy.
A variety of dishes are prepared and eaten during the holidays, but one dessert which is present on every Sicilian table is the buccellato. A sweet, circular cake filled with raisins, figs, orange peel, pumpkin and almonds, the buccellato is glazed, powdered and topped with candied fruits. Delicious. You can find them in every bakery in the city.
So, although I could get nostalgic for snowball fights and leaving cookies out for Santa, I can get on board with the Sicilian celebration. I especially like the idea an ugly witch breaking into houses. A definite improvement over fat old Santa. The best traditions terrify children, rather than coddle them.
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