I have always loved Christmas and in Puglia it is particularly magical…It starts in earnest on the ‘immacolata’ – the 8th of December. The main Christmas lights go up , people have a day off work and decorate their trees, if they haven’t already, and it becomes increasingly hard to get any sense out of anyone on the work front – the holidays have definitely begun, in spirit anyway.
As soon as it gets dark the streets are lit with twinkling lights – no garish multi-coloured neon here, but usually golden, silver or blue, and simple forms such as stars. Lit like this the church domes, medieval arches and wrought iron balconies look particularly romantic and the streets are crowded with people . They are nominally doing Christmas shopping but often, one gets the impression, they are just wandering about, to see and be seen, calling out greetings to friends and neighbours and stopping occasionally, maybe for a hot chocolate with whipped cream, at a bar.
It varies from town to town, but often the stall holders from the weekly general market set up in the main square every Sunday in December, and most towns now have a special market or fair, in the run up to Christmas, with music, stalls serving traditional Christmas pastries like the deep fried ‘cartellate’ or ‘pettole’ as well as local crafts and gifts.
In the week before Christmas the local shops and market stalls are stuffed to overflowing with chestnuts, walnuts, branches of bay and rosemary, clementines and oranges, and displays of dried salt cod, which is traditionally served in a variety of ways on Christmas Eve evening, having been soaked before hand to remove the salt. Everyone shops as if the world is about to end, or food shortages are imminent ,but they still find time to say ‘Auguri’ to everyone they cross paths with – a kind of all purpose ‘good wishes’ used interchangeably for Christmas, Easter, Birthdays and other high days and holidays.
Of course the church plays it’s part and, even if perhaps it is now unusual for people to attend all of the many services, Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve is a must, although some people just put in an appearance, turning up just before the end and standing at the back of the usually crowded churches or cathedrals.
As elsewhere in Southern Italy ‘presepi’ or crib scenes play an important part of the Christmas ritual. Every house has its own, with little figures representing Mary, Joseph, a stable and animals. The baby Jesus doesn’t put in an appearance till Christmas morning, usually added by the youngest child in the family, and the three wise men are positioned elsewhere in the house, to be added to the presepio on the 6th of January or the Epiphany. The scenes vary in complexity, often representing whole villages with market stalls, inns, blacksmiths’ bothys, potteries and so on. In the south of Puglia the Lecce area is famous for its, often elaborate, papier mache presepio figurines.
In many towns there is a ‘presepio vivente’ or live crib scene, with locals dressing up and playing the relevant parts and often very elaborate tableaux, representing the villages, crafts and activities of a bygone age and lots of real animals as well as the Nativity itself. The settings are often very evocative – the one in Polignano is situated in a network of real grottoes, the one in Alberobello uses trulli in the historic centre and the tableau are very lively – you can watch locals in costume making fresh pasta or cheese, or admire the wise men on the 6th as they ride in on horseback…
Above all Christmas is a time for family and, like everywhere else, a huge amount of preparation, cooking and eating goes on. As a concession to modern times though many restaurants serve a set Christmas Eve dinner and Christmas lunch though visitors should be aware that these are lengthy occasions, with an awe inspiring amount of food and as you get up from the table you do wonder if you will ever be able to eat again as you stagger homewards