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Sicily Christmas traditions are a very strong trait in the island’s identity. This year however, as anywhere else in Italy, people will be spending their Christmas holidays in a more understated mood. Sicily Christmas is normally characterized by many traditions, cultural and popular events that this year won’t take place for obvious reasons. Today however, we will try to make our best to stay positive and talk to you about what were -and what will be again in the future- our 3 major ways to celebrate Sicily Christmas.

Christmas decorations in Caltagirone, Sicily

#1 Sicily Christmas tradition: time with your family

The most important Sicily Christmas tradition, as anywhere else Italy, is to spend quality time with family, relatives and friends. Family is a deeply rooted Italian value, and in Sicily we tend to give so many importance to family traditions, especially at Christmas, that this year we are going to miss a lot the time spent with our beloved ones. In Sicily, Christmas time means very long tables set in red with candles, where to spend very long hours eating and playing together. The lights on the Christmas tree, the nativity scene, the melody of Christmas songs, our  beautiful reindeer sweater, and the delicious food scent coming from the kitchen: this is a picture of the typical Sicily Christmas before the pandemic. While children are opening presents under the Christmas tree, granny and mommy are busy in the kitchen from the early morning to prepare their Christmas food menu, to bring joy at the table and to surprise family and friends. Playing cards after a meal is another typical Sicily Christmas activity, and many people use to meet at friends’ house and play cards all night long during Christmas holidays. The most traditional games with cards include briscola, scopa, cucù, but there are also many other fun table games that can entertain as well.

#2 Sicilian Christmas food tradition: eat, eat, eat!

Well, as you have probably already experienced if you have been to Sicily before, food is maybe the most central part of our identity and in Sicily, Christmastime –as also other traditional holidays- only tend to exaggerate this feature. For sure, Sicilians do not need to wait for Christmas to meet and eat together, but Christmas holiday is one of the favorite time of the year, when to go wild planning rich lunches and tasty dinners to surprise family and friends. Christmas food in Sicily usually appears in very long menus which usually begin with starters made of local products (such as salami, olives, cheese, various canapés…). Then, each area of Sicily has its own typical Christmas food, with several varieties of dishes and recipes, many of which came from a long tradition of connections between different cultures. The first course is usually a rich and abundant pasta al forno, also known as pasta ‘ncaciata, that can vary from place to place: this typical Christmas food is made with many ingredients, such as tomato sauce, hard-boiled eggs, ham, eggplants and cheese, in the variant of tuma cheese in Messina. The calories for a good portion of pasta al forno are enough for your daily intake, but we never heard about any Sicilian who has ever dare to refuse the rest of the Christmas food menu.

Sicily Christmas table

The second course at a Sicily Christmas table can be prepared with meat or fish. According to tradition, in Messina we use to prepare many recipes of Sicilian food made with stock fish and salt cod.  Both of them need a soaking of several hours before to be cooked. They are two variant of the same fish, which is cod, the one naturally dried and the other preserved in salt. This fish was introduced in the Sicily Christmas cuisine by the Normans, who used to bring it to Sicily form Norway to employ it as a merchandise, and by the fishermen returning home from the Northern seas. Sicilian women learnt to prepare it with love for their husbands, pairing it with typical ingredients, such as capers and olives. Therefore, among the Christmas food list in Messina, the traditional fried salt cod is a must at Christmas Eve, the messinese stock fish salad or the so-called ghiotta stockfish, prepared with the Sicilian sauce “ghiotta”, made with tomato, capers, olives, raisins and pine nuts. Other fish-based Sicily Christmas dishes are fried squids, smoked herrings, or stuffed squids, too good to say no!

If the menu is focused on meat-based food, then you can’t miss the messinesi meat rolls, sausages, meatloaf and the typical falsomagro. This funny name comes from the French “farce de maigre”, where the word “farce” means lie and the word “maigre” means low-fat, and indeed the falsomagro is anything but a low-fat dish.  It is a big meat roll stuffed with eggs, minced meat, ham, pecorino cheese, bread crumbs, and for those who want to exaggerate also lard and mortadella. The diet is postponed until January!

But the best part of a Sicily Christmas meal is always the delightful conclusion: the dessert(s)! Along with the classic Italian pandoro and panettone -which we like to cover with Bronte pistachio cream- it is a must to enjoy our delicious ricotta-based desserts, cannoliand/orcassata, usually paired with sweet Sicilian wines or homemade Sicilian drinks, such as Limoncello, Malvasia, Passito and Zibibbo. Buccellati cookies are instead typical of Castellammare del Golfo, stuffed with dried figs, almonds, nuts, honey, jam and raisins. N.B: we usually avoid pop-corn while watching Christmas movie on the sofa after lunch.

#3 Living nativity scene and cribs

Along with the Christmas tree, in Italy there is another significant tradition: the nativity scene, introduced by Saint Francis d’Assisi in the Middle Age. In 1223 he set in Assisi the first representation of Jesus’ birth. In Sicily, the tradition of Christmas crib became common thanks to the Jesuits, and today it is so important in the Sicily Christmas that we have museums where some of the most ancient or original nativity scenes are collected. One of the most famous exhibition of Christmas cribs is surely the one in Caltagirone: this small town is very popular thanks to the ceramic production, but it is also known as the “town of 100 Christmas cribs“; indeed, the nativity scene tradition in Caltagirone goes back to the 16th century, when the artisans started the production of small ceramic statues to set up small cribs. Nowadays you can admire a great collection of nativity scenes, created in various materials (wood, glass, paper, wool, ceramic…) exposed in the museum and several spots in Caltagirone.

Christmas crib in the exhibition of Caltagirone

The living nativity scene is another valuable and cherished expression of the Sicily Christmas. So many of the Sicilian villages perched on hills and mountains and surrounded by valleys are perfect locations to perform the living nativity scene: mazes of narrow cobbled streets give the perfect set and atmosphere to reproduce the ancient Bethlehem and the time of Jesus’ birth, while the inhabitants enjoy to wear costumes and offer local food and wine to visitors, with the sound of the traditional bagpipe in the background. The living nativity scene is also a good occasion to exhibit and relive the ancient crafts that no longer exist and often it can happen to see real animals in fences so that children can see and touch. This kind of performance is a very widespread tradition in Italy, and in Sicily Christmas we have very popular examples of living nativity scene:

Living nativity scene of Castanea (Messina)
  • Living nativity scene in Custonaci (Trapani):  Custonaci is a small rural village, known for the presence of karstic caves, inhabited in the prehistoric age. During Christmas time, in one of these beautiful caves, it is set a living nativity scene performed by the local people.
  • Living nativity scene in Castanea (Messina):Castanea is a village situated on the hills of Messina, and it recently became famous along with Gesso Sicily for being the home place of Jill Biden’s ancestor. Castanea, every year at Christmas, become the set of one of the most popular and beautiful living nativity scenes here in Sicily.
  • Living nativity scene in Gangi (Palermo): the village of Gangi won the prize of the most beautiful Italian village in 2014. The heart of the village is characterized by narrow streets and many stairs which become the perfect location to set a big and very detailed living nativity scene.
  • Living nativity scene in Ispica (Ragusa): in Ispica, a village in South-Eastern Sicily, the living nativity scene is recreated following an itinerary connecting the historical center to the famous location of “Cava d’Ispica“, a very impressive archaeological site where the nativity scene is set. So many visitors every year enjoy the beautiful view of a place in which faith and nature are perfectly combined together.
Women making wicker baskets in the living nativity scene of Castanea, (Messina)

Sicily Christmas for some historic villages does not only mean living nativity scenes, but also other important folkloric representations, called Pastorali, that are sacred dramas widespread in Sicily in XVII and XVIII centuries. Today they are very common in the Sicilian inland of Agrigento and Caltanissetta. The term pastorali recall the figure of the shepherds, that according to the religious tradition, thanks to their simplicity and humbleness were the first to whom baby Jesus revealed. In Licata, for example, the drama is performed from 26th December to 6th January in the streets, having as main characters three shepherds played by three local inhabitants who talk in dialect wearing ancient costumes. Then, shepherds try to sleep in the grotto waiting for the birth of Jesus and when it comes, they sing and dance involving also the rest of the audience while offering food and wine.

Unfortunately this year due to the pandemic any of these beautiful and precious popular manifestation will take place. For so many of us, this Christmas will be surely much more sober and simple than in past years; many people will spend holidays without enjoying time with family, many others maybe won’t neither be in the mood to celebrate. We think that this particular year taught us how precious are the moments spent with our beloved ones, and we know that for sure it will leave us with the desire and hope for the next year to do and enjoy the many things we have missed and will be missing till the end.

Three Kings visiting Jesus in the living nativity scene of Castanea (Messina)

Anyway, in spite of the uncertainty of this time, hoping you have enjoyed this post about Sicily Christmas, we want to wish you and your families a good health, and if not a Christmas full of parties, may it be at least a Christmas full of love. Merry Christmas!

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