Most families in Italy begin celebrating il Natale on the evening of December 24 (la vigilia di Natale) with a big dinner. Because Christmas Eve is a vigilia di magro (a day of abstinence on which the Catholic Church prohibits the consumption of meat), the centerpiece of the meal is fish.

The traditional choice is eel, a favorite of the ancient Romans that appears in the earliest known cookbook, written by a gourmand known as Apicius. This symbol of life and immortality was sold alive and wiggling, then beheaded, chopped and dropped into boiling water, spit-roasted, grilled, stewed with white wine and peas  or pickled in vinegar, oil, bay leaves, rosemary and cloves.

In some regions the Christmas Eve feast has seven courses (for the seven sacraments); others serve nine (the trinity times three) or thirteen (for Jesus and his twelve disciples). Some of the fish dishes include fritto misto with lemon (mixed fried fish), calamari or pasta with anchovies.

Families may go to midnight Mass (la messa di mezzanotte) in their local church or watch the Pope’s televised outdoor Mass at St. Peter’s basilica in Rome. At midday on Christmas the Pope again appears on television to deliver his annual “urbi et orbi” message to “the city and the world.”

Il pranzo di Natale (the Christmas day meal) usually starts with a rich pasta, such as cappelletti in brodo, little hats stuffed with chopped meats, cheese, eggs or pumpkin. By tradition everyone is supposed to eat at least a dozen. Depending on the region of Italy, the main course may be capon, pork or turkey.

Everyone saves room for the special dolci (sweets). Many of the original recipes were created by nuns who prepared special types of sweets as gifts for prominent clergymen and noble families. They include cartellate (curly ribbons of dough that symbolize the sheets on which the baby Jesus lay), calzoncelli  (the pillows for his head) and latte di mandorla (Virgin’s milk).

Among the various types of holiday bread are pangiallo (a round bread crammed with fruits and nuts–an ancient symbol of fertility), panforte (a fruitcake-like specialty of Siena)  and panpepato (peppery and dark, somewhat like gingerbread).

The most famous is the tall cupola-shaped panettone, with origins that date back to ancient Rome. The term derives from panetto (loaf of bread) combined with “one” (a suffix meaning large and pronounced “oh-nay”), although some claim its name comes from the Milanese expression “pan di ton” (luxury bread).

After the meal, families play a game called tombola, similar to bingo, with dried beans as markers. Players win coins or small prizes for covering two numbers (ambo), three (terno), five (cinquina) or the entire card (tombola). In towns and cities many Italians have started a new Christmas day tradition: going to the movies.

December 26 brings Prima Festa (first feast) and another big family meal to honor Santo Stefano (St. Stephen), the first Christian martyr, who was stoned to death for his beliefs. This day gave rise to an idiomatic expression — da Natale a Santo Stefano (from Christmas to St. Stephen’s Day) — to describe a very brief period of time.

Buon Natale e Felice Anno Nuovo!

Dianne Hales is the author of  LA PASSIONE: How Italy Seduced the World, LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World’s Most Enchanting Language and MONA LISA: A Life Discovered. For more information, visit diannehales.com.