Christmas in Puglia and the magic of winter in South Italy

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The snowflakes at Sant’ Oronzo square in Lecce shine like little diamonds in the indigo blue sky, the Christmas tree arises high above the square and the sleigh with deers has already boarded passengers for some magical country where it is constant Christmas. Flavours of wine and gingerbread come from the cozy wooden houses surrounding the square and from somewhere is heard a tender holiday song, without being intrusive or interrupting our talks. Only Santa Claus is missing but apparently he is not that popular here and you will rarely see him around. Instead, more important are the Nativity scenes, present in every Christmas decoration across the South Italian towns and villages. And I am so lucky to be in Puglia two weeks before Christmas and enjoy the holiday spirit genuinely with the locals and the very few tourists who come to this area in this time of the year.

Santa's ride at Sant' Oronzo square in Lecce
Santa’s ride at Sant’ Oronzo square in Lecce

Holidays for the people

After many visits ot Puglia, we have always admired the attitude of local people to life. The feeling of belonging to a community has become unusual in our society and we find it very attractive and interesting when we see and feel it all across Puglia. No matter at what time of the year you visit, there will be some festival or religious holiday in some small town or village that gathers all the inhabitants and brings them genuine joy of celebrating together.

The same is valid for the Christmas season. The shining Christmas lights, the decorated deciduous trees with bare branches, the Nativity scenes are not there to attract tourists to buy gifts in expensive packaging. They are there to bring the Christmas spirit to the year-round coziness of local life.

Nativity scenes are a favourite Christmas decoration in Puglia
Nativity scenes are a favourite Christmas decoration in Puglia

The Christmas decorations in Puglia

Puglia is a warm place, snow is a rarity even in January and the view of snowy Christmas is not usual. Natural Christmas trees are also a rarity. On the town squares and other public spaces you can see trees made by a metal construction and lit by the traditional lights luminarie, typical for the decoration of every festivity in the area. The luminarie can also be seen above the streets, creating festive and cozy atmosphere.

Christmas decorations in Tricase, 2018
Christmas decorations in Tricase, 2018
Same place, December 2019 - apparently they don't use the same decoration every year
Same place, December 2019 – apparently they don’t use the same decoration every year

In the small villages and countryside farms you can often find a usual tree decorated as a Christmas tree. Or even a flower with Christmas decorations, acting as a tree. And pines by the fireplace.

Christmas decorations ar Sante le Muse - a cozy farm where you can have amazing home-made lunch or just enjoy the countryside of Puglia
Christmas decorations at Sante le Muse – a cozy farm where you can have amazing home-made lunch or just enjoy the countryside of Puglia

The Nativity scenes

The most typical Christmas decoration in Puglia is the Nativity scene. You can find them in various shapes, sizes and materials – ceramics, wood, stone, textile, paper.. In every house, in every yard, on every square and in every restaurant or any publlic space you will notice a Nativity scene. Some of them are small and discrete, others are larger and there are even whole art installations covering hundreds of square metres.

Nativity scene in the Church of the Gesù in Lecce
Nativity scene in the Church of the Gesù in Lecce

Christmas decorations in Lecce

One of the largest and most interesting installations, dedicated to the birth of Jesus Chtist, is located at Piazza del Duomo in Lecce. Surrounded by the main cathedral of the city, the seminary and the Bishop’s Palace, this Christmas decoration looks as a permanent part of the landscape. Besides the Nativity scene, the installation includes elements of daily life and landscape in Puglia, including the pajare stone houses and the orange trees.

Christmas decoration at Piazza de Duomo, Lecce - Christmas in Puglia, Christmas in Sputh Italy, winter in South Italy
Christmas decoration at Piazza de Duomo, Lecce
A side look of the art installation at Piazza del Duomo, Lecce
A side look of the art installation at Piazza del Duomo, Lecce

In the Castle of Charles V (Castello Carlo V) in Lecce there was an exhibition and bazaar of Christmas decorations, featuring mostly Nativity scenes. Among the cutest ones were the scenes featuring the pumo – the egg-shaped symbol of ceramics in Puglia. The rooms of the exhibition were full of local people shopping for Christmas decorations.

Exhibition of Christmas decorations in Castello Carlo V in Lecce, Puglia, South Italy
Exhibition of Christmas decorations in Castello Carlo V in Lecce
More Nativity scenes at the exhibition
More Nativity scenes at the exhibition

Ceramic decorations – typical for Puglia

Puglia is a region with old traditions in the art of ceramics and ceramic decorations are very common. There is even an annual contest for Nativity scenes made of ceramics. It is held in Grottaglie, the capital of ceramics in Puglia. During our trip in September 2019 we visited the museum of ceramics in Grottaglie that stores the winning works from all of the competitions. There are really amazing works.

One of the prized Nativity scenes in the Ceramics Museum in Grottaglie
One of the prized Nativity scenes in the Ceramics Museum in Grottaglie
Another award-winning artwork - museum of ceramics, Grottaglie
Another award-winning artwork – museum of ceramics, Grottaglie
Christmas decorations featuring the pumo at the Brindisi airport
Christmas decorations featuring the pumo at the Brindisi airport

How do people in Puglia celebrate Christmas?

During all of my trips, I am the most curious about details related to the lifestyle of local people. Not that the history of the buildings and monuments is not interesting to me, but my questions always levitate around what people do now.

For Christmas people in Puglia gather with their large family. On Christmas eve they usually serve fish and seafood. But nothing is obligatory. Fish, seafood, vegetables – various starters and main dishes can be found on the table. The Christmas lunch is rich and long. Several starters, then pasta, then main course, or two main courses.., maybe desserts and always wine. The tradional pasta served for Christmas is orecchiette with tomato sauce and meatballs as well as lasagna. The main course is usually lamb or beefsteak, but some opt for fish as well.

Very nice Christmas decoration we found in one shop in Tricase
Very nice Christmas decoration we found in one shop in Tricase

Seafood is generally a very traditional and popular food across Puglia and are present on every table. For dessert Italians have tens of types of pastries, most of them with almonds, about which I really envy them. To me the most Christmas spirit bring the mustazzoli – dark cookies based on flour, almonds, sugar, cinnamon and honey. They pair perfectly with coffee and wine as well.

Poinsettia flower is another symbol of Christmas and winter in Puglia. The Italian name is Stella di Natale - Christmas star
Poinsettia flower is another symbol of Christmas and winter in Puglia. The Italian name is Stella di Natale – Christmas star

Stone pines and pine nuts

There are flavours that bring you back to childhood. I was speaking to Giaccomo and Carlo from Salento about their image of Christmas. The talk turned around the pigna, or the stone pine tree, which is an usual view across Puglia.

More Christmas coziness in Puglia
More Christmas coziness in Puglia

The pines of this parasol-shaped trees have edible seeds, known also as pine nuts. And the aroma of the pine opening near the fireplace to release its nuts is what locals imagine of Christmas. The dried pines are also used for decorarion of the house.

The view of Christmas - fireplace and pines
The view of Christmas – fireplace and pines

Winter festives in Puglia

No matter when you come to Puglia, there is always some festivity in some town or village. Outside the peak summer tourist season, locals have plenty of opportunities to gather and celebrate. Here are some of the most interesting winter festives in Puglia.

6 December, St. Nicholas

St. Nicholas day is an important day in Puglia. The saint is a patron of fishermen and seamen and Puglia is a place surrounded by sea from 3 sides.

At the centre of the town of Salve is the beautiful baroque church San Nicola Magno Chiesa. On 6th December they celebrate their patron day with a large procession with the figure of the saint, starting from here and going through the whole town. The inhabitants of Salve welcome the procession with open doors and windows and lit candles. The atmosphere is very sacral.

Procession for St. Nicholas day in Salve, Salento
Procession for St. Nicholas day in Salve, Salento

7 December – La Pittulatta, Tiggiano

Pittule is a traditional starter in Salento, consisting of fried dough balls, sometimes stuffed with something. Despite it is a very simple dish, it has a whole festival dedicated to it. La Pittulata is held every year on 7 December in Tiggiano, where people gather in the Baron’s Palace yard, cook and eat pittule.

Pittule cooking during La Pittulata in Tiggiano
Pittule cooking during La Pittulata in Tiggiano

On this day is also celebrated Immacolata Concezione – the Immaculate Conception of Virgin Mary.

13 December – the day of Santa Lucia

Saint Lucy (Santa Lucia) was a martyr from Syracuse from the early 4th century. She is celebrated for helping Christians during the Diocletian Persecutions. The legend says that the martyr walked with a candle lit wreath on her head in order to keep her hands free to bring as much food as possible to Christians hiding in catacombs. The day of Santa Lucia is widely celebrated across Salento.

Kids in Tiggiano celebrating the Salnat Lucia day
Kids in Tiggiano celebrating the Santa Lucia day

We attended the celebrations in Tiggiano, where a music band entertained the public and there was a small Christmas market on the central square. One of the stalls was occupied by a group of local children selling self-made candies. I will never forget their surprise when they understood we were foreigners and “journalists”. So our group of three Bulgarians turned into the attraction of the night for the local youth.

One of the kids explained that her sister was studying in Bulgaria. And when we asked if we could take a photo with them, they literally freaked out of joy that we will write about them and take photos. So in the coming 15 minutes they posed and jumped of joy.

During the celebration it was supposed to be a ritual fire but it was cancelled because of the windy weather. However, even without fire the mood was festive and warm.

Candelora – 2 February

This is also a popular holiday in Puglia and Andrey joined the festivities in the town of Specchia. It is again a fair for the locals, with music band on the treets and a food market.

The streets of Specchia during Candelora
The streets of Specchia during Candelora

On such occasions we always notice how popular almonds are here. Another curious local product for us are the sweet carrots (pestanache di Tiggiano).

Sweet carrots and normal carrots
Sweet carrots and normal carrots

Winter in Puglia

Winter in Puglia is warm and cozy. Sometimes it rains but the temperatures are usually around 10-15 degrees. Snow is a rarity. The seaside attracts the most tourists in the summer, but winter is a great time to enjoy everything else Puglia has to offer.

And Puglia is charming, it is probably the less touristic region in Italy. It is the place where you can withess in a most authentic way the local habits and lifestyle. You can walk around the hundreds of churches and the many museums. Or the cozy streets in the historic centers of the small towns and villages. Or just enjoy the natural beauties all by yourselves – along the coast there are plenty of fjords, natural pools, caves, etc. And an inevitable part of the landscape are the many old fortification towers and the conic stone houses know as pajare than once hosted local farmers.

The yard with prickly pears and a pajaru house
Prickly pears and a pajaru house

Or just enjoy the amazing food of Puglia. This you can do year-round, despite some restaurants might be open only for the summer. People in Puglia love to eat and live with pleasure.

Maria in the cozy yard of Agriturismo Sante le Muse
Maria in the cozy yard of Agriturismo Sante le Muse

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