While the Christmas season begins well before December 24 in many parts of the world — December 8 in Italy, the Day of the Immaculate Conception; and December 6 in France, the Feast of St. Nicholas, for example — it’s Christmas Eve that marks the beginning of the major Christian holiday for many.
For my family growing up, it meant heading over to my Irish grandmother’s house where she’d always prepare a huge Italian feast (my grandfather was Italian). I still remember the smells of meatballs simmering on the stove, platters of gooey mostaccioli, the occasional fish (but not the traditional Italian seven!) and ending our meal not only with cake, but boxes of Fanny Mae chocolate (which I always had to try multiple of in search of just the right filling!) After opening presents, my family would often go to midnight mass too before heading back home to get a few hours of sleep while St. Nick arrived with our gifts.
Many around the world have similar traditions. But in some Catholic countries, such as Mexico, Spain, France and Italy, chances are the families will fast on Christmas Eve and go to Midnight Mass. It’s not until after Mass that they sit down and feast! In France they have a name for it: “Le Reveillon,” which means “awakening”… since the food was supposed to help keep you awake.
Another popular European tradition, which actually predates the first Christmas, is the Yule log. Burning the yule log was thought to cleanser the air from the past year and mark the end of the Winter season. Many bring the log/tree into the house on Christmas Eve and then slowly feed it to the fireplace over the 12 Days of Christmas. Like so many traditions, different countries and cultures make it their own; in France for one, they often sprinkle it with wine so that it lets off a wonderful aroma. Others decorate it with pinecones or ivy before burning it.
Over time it was harder for families to bring in logs to burn as the hearths became smaller. Rather these hearths were better equipped for baking. As such, the tradition of the Buche de Noel was born, and some say that the dessert tradition dates back to the 1600s. While there are a variety of recipes for this beautiful dessert, a classic French recipe features sponge cake along with pastry cream and buttercream — and plenty of decorations on top!
For another traditional Christmas Eve dinner, check out our recipe for Cappelletti in brodo.
How do you and your family celebrate Christmas Eve?
See more of our favorite Christmas traditions.
By Liz Hall
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