In the countless times that Pranzo has traveled to Italy, I’ve been fortunate to be the country on three occasions during the Christmas holiday season. On one trip, my daughters and I stayed for a week between Christmas and Capodanno (or the New Year). We had a magical time walking the brightly lit streets of Rome every day and evening.

It’s easy to be on a vacation high, especially in Italy. But after experiencing Christmas, I asked myself how could I capture this spirit at home? Why do Italians love this season so much and how do they make it so special?

The secret is in their closely held traditions. Like so many of a certain age, the older I get the more I respect holiday traditions. They define the season and I look forward to them every year. In Italy where change is very, very slow, Italians treasure centuries-old traditions like Babbo Natale or Santa Claus and special holiday recipes passed down from one generation to the next.

As with all Italian holidays, there are distinct Christmas menus. Whether it’s the lasagna or the strufoli or the panettone, they all have an important role. This is just another tradition, but one worth mentioning separately because the time and care dedicated to these dishes amplifies their importance.

The feast of the seven fishes (La Vigilia) on Christmas Eve; the feast of San Silvestro on New Year’s Eve; and La Befana for the Epiphany on January 6th are all separate menus. Every year cooks all over the country try to make these menus as well or even better than the year before. It is a tradition for millions of people gather to eat the same foods with the same people and laugh and enjoy like they didn’t just do the same thing twelve months earlier.