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Friday, December 3, 2010

Buon Natale 2010!

It's always hard for me to believe how quickly the holiday season comes around. It seems I just wrote Christmas cards a few months ago...not 12 months ago. As a child, I was convinced it was closer to 12 years between the big event.

Speaking of children and Christmas, I think Italian kids are just luckier than others. They receive gifts from both "Babbo Natale" (Father Christmas) on December 25th, AND from "La Befana" on January 6th. "La" who? Ms. Befana, according to legend, is an old woman who flies on a broom and somehow balances all sorts of goodies on her flying stick. The story goes that the legendary three wise men got lost and stopped at La Befana's house to ask for directions to Bethlehem (this is where the "legend" part of the story comes in, as we all know that men do not stop and ask for directions). However, she did not know the location of the blessed event. The wise men asked her to join them in the search, but she declined. Later, when she saw the bright light in the sky and all the angels buzzing around it, she changed her mind. Sadly, it was too late. She never found the baby Jesus and she has been searching ever since. It is believed that the three wise men finally reached Bethlehem on January 6th, which is known as the Epiphany. That's why La Befana arrives that day, filling stockings with treats for all sleeping kiddies in Italy. Naughty children receive coal (clever parents substitute rock-sugar dyed black). To butter up the old gal, the children sing this little ditty:

"La Befana vien di notte,
con le scarpe tutte rotte,
neve, gelo, tramontana,
viva viva La Befana!"

"La Befana comes at night,
wearing her ruined shoes,
snow, frost, winter winds,
long live, La Befana!"

Sing along as you gaze at the attached photo of my friend's La Befana.....

Since most people think of Tuscany as all green and filled with fields of grapes and olives bathing in the sun, it may be hard to imagine this same countryside covered with the occasional snowfall. The Italians, like us, are crazy about celebrating the holiday season but their focus is not so much about decorating trees and houses as it is on the Nativity scene ("Presepio"). Italians take great pride in the creation of the manger, which was a sort of clever publicity stunt thought up in 1223 by St. Francis of Assisi, who wanted to involve the peasants in celebrating the life of Jesus. In the larger cities, there is often a contest between churches competing for the honor of "best crib". The Presepios are quite elaborate and people go from church to church to view and compare.
Here are some wintry scenes for your viewing pleasure - the first is my friend, Franco Lombardi's house, the second is some of his olive trees, and the third is a distant view of San Gimignano, the "Manhattan" of Tuscany.

With all the celebrating, singing, old women arriving on brooms, and crib viewing, there is still plenty of time for eating. One traditional event is "La Cena Della Vigilia" (The Feast of the Seven Fishes). On Christmas Eve, there may be as many as ten to twenty fish dishes prepared. But the tradition of eating seven fish dishes stems from the "magic" around the number seven, such as, the seven sacraments, seven days of creation, or the biblical interpretation that the number seven signifies perfection.

And, speaking of perfection, here's one of my favorite Italian holiday treats for your eating enjoyment:

Spumetti (Chocolate Hazelnut Meringues)

1 lb hazelnut meats, coarsely chopped

1 lb confectioner's sugar

1 oz cocoa (2 Tbsp)

2 tsp cinnamon

5-6 egg whites

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper and grease lightly. Place hazelnuts, sugar, cocoa, and cinnamon in a large bowl. Add egg whites and mix until mixture is well blended - about 5 minutes. Wet hands with water and break off small pieces of mixture (about 1 Tbsp) and shape into round balls. Place on baking sheets 1" apart. Bake for approximately 30 minutes. Makes about 3 1/2 dozen.

Make your mouth water? Make you want to go to Tuscany? I'm just the person to talk to! Check out my website: http://www.theroadlesstraveledtours.com

The tour information lists the 2011 tours, but if those dates don't work for you, contact me and we'll work together on other dates.

As this wonderful season comes upon us, I wish you good health and much happiness. But if you're more into the Scrooge bit, then Bah Humbug! ("Odi0s0 Zuccone!")

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