Christmas is one of the most heartfelt festivities in Italy, and Sardinia is no exception. Due to the heavy Catholic influence and the strong link that Sardinian people have with their folklore and pagan traditions, Christmas in Sardinia has always been quite unique and interesting, filled with rites in which religion and superstition, Christianity and paganism have always been interlinked.
If you are looking into spending Christmas in Sardinia, you’ll be happy to know that it’s quite a big affair, though the island is a million miles away from the more famous Christmas holiday destinations of northern Italy and other places in Europe.
This post will explain you what you need to know about Christmas in Sardinia, with a look into the main traditions, Sardinian traditional Christmas meals, and more.
Traditional Christmas In Sardinia
Before the rapid industrialization that took place in the last two centuries, Sardinians were a population of simple, hard-working people whose economy was based on farming and sheep herding. There wasn’t much time for resting or having fun, especially for men, and even more so for the ones who practiced the transhumance. This activity, although excellent for providing for one’s family, would force men to spend months away from home, living off bread and dairy products in narrow and often cold shelters.
Christmas in Sardinia was thus an occasion for the family to meet and spend some time together, eating warm food and playing while sitting next to the fire. And in fact, the fire itself has always been one of the main features of the Sardinia Christmas celebrations.
The fireplace and its sacred role
The fireplace has always, in any tradition, been a symbol of warmth and of “being home” and, of course, it is also the warmest place in the house. The fact that sitting next to the fireplace and eating Christmas dinner is still considered an important tradition, especially in the colder mountain villages, shouldn’t sound weird at all.
Locals often prepare a special wood log, called su truncu e’ xena (the dinner’s log), which was originally meant to be lit up on Christmas Eve and kept burning until January 6th, the end of the Christmas period.
Traditionally, families would meet and eat a frugal dinner on Christmas Eve – at least compared to the lunch awaiting them on Christmas day. They would then spend the evening talking, eating nuts and tangerines (in the richest families) playing various games, and telling stories, which varied from the most recent gossip to horror stories to scare the kids, who were specially allowed to stay up late.
These legends and tales were usually told by the eldest member of the family and often included a lesson that the kids were supposed to learn: one of the most famous ones, that almost every Sardinian knows, is the story of “Maria Punta a’Oru” (Mary with a hook).
It’s a simple yet effective scary tale to convince kids to eat everything they are given on Christmas Eve (to prevent food waste). It says there is a witch, called Maria, who owns a hooked, pointy stick and checks everyone’s bed after they have fallen asleep. If she finds your stomach empty (meaning you didn’t finish your Christmas dinner), she will dig a hole in it with her stick. This hole will never heal, and you will never be able to have food in your belly again (plus, your friends will likely make fun of you for being a spoiled child).
Scary, right? I used to be terrified of the witch, back in the day.
Traditional Sardinian Christmas Games
Scary stories aside, several games were (and still are) played on Christmas Eve, both by adults and children. Older people would usually play cards or bingo, while the kids would play a betting game with a special four-faced spinning top called su barralliccu. Each face had a letter written on it, and each letter was the action to be taken by the player.
Children would bet their tangerines and hazelnuts (sometimes candies, if they received any) and follow the spinning toy’s landing face’s instructions: T (tottu, all: you get the whole jackpot); M (metadi, half: you get half the jackpot); N (Nudda, nothing: you don’t win anything); P (Poni, put: you have to put something on the jackpot’s stack).
Christmas Mass and Superstitions
All of the talking and games served as a double means: to finally have some relaxation and fun after months of working, and to keep everyone entertained until Mass time. The whole family would in fact go to church at midnight to celebrate the so-called miss’e’ puddu, the “rooster’s Mass”, which probably got this name because of the early hour it is celebrated at (close to the rooster’s first cry).
Like many other aspects of folklore, going to Mass was seen both as a religious duty and as a good-luck charm, especially for some groups of people. The most common example is the fact that pregnant women were (and sometimes still are) expected to go to church on Christmas Eve, otherwise, it was believed that they would deliver a sick baby or even a monster.
This is not the only superstition about pregnancy and Christmas: many locals still think that a baby born on December 25th will live a long and healthy life, and there is also another belief saying that these babies can bring good luck to the whole neighborhood.
Modern Christmas in Sardinia
As I said before, some of the old rites and traditions are still part of the Christmas modern rites, but society has changed and so has folklore. Let’s see some of the most famous Christmas rituals and festivals in Sardinia.
Many cities and even smaller towns in Sardinia host Nativity Scenes exhibitions and competitions during the Christmas period. Every church will have one, of course, so you should visit a few places to see as many as possible.
Cagliari is probably the best choice as it hosts several private exhibitions as well, the most popular being the one held at the Botanical Garden. There are also nativity scenes performed by real actors: the most famous one is Assolo’s “Sulla Via della Cometa” (Following the Comet’s Path), which is played by more than 150 people, which beautifully mixes Sardinian language with costumes that beautifully resemble traditional ones worn in Palestine.
Another very special nativity scene is the Olmedo Bread nativity. You will be able to see this in Olmedo, a small town near Sassari, at Nostra Signora di Talia Church. As the name suggests, statues in the nativity are entirely made of bread. This is quite unique!
If you go to Solanas, about one hour drive from Cagliari, you will be able to admire an underwater nativity scene.
There really is a nativity scene for each person’s tastes.
Christmas Markets In Sardinia
Another recent Christmas tradition is the Christmas street markets. Again, the biggest cities offer more variety but there is plenty of smaller villages also hosting them. They are a great occasion to have a walk on the streets filled with fairy lights, Christmas trees, and other decorations, even if you don’t feel like buying anything.
Notoriously, the prettiest markets are held in Cagliari, Iglesias, and Golfo Aranci, each of them with different opening and closing days depending on the year (this year’s schedule hasn’t come out yet).
Celebrating Christmas at home
Although Christmas is still one of the most celebrated festivities in Sardinia, there have been some changes compared to the past and the traditions have often been replaced by more mainstream, popular habits – also brought about by the influence of TV and by regular intermixing with people coming from other parts of Italy.
Many families still have a get-together on Christmas Eve, eat an abundant dinner and spend the night playing and chatting.
The most religious ones go to Church for the midnight Mass, while some others prefer exchanging presents and letting the kids play with their new toys. Some other families will have a simple dinner on December 24th and an abundant lunch on the 25th, followed by the exchanging of presents.
Another feature that has stayed consistent in many families is the games played while waiting for midnight: it is still quite common to spend the evening playing cards or bingo and betting some coins just for fun while eating some traditional sweets.
Sardinian Christmas food
Speaking of food, what do Sardinian eat for Christmas?
Different families have different habits, with some preferring a meal of fish and seafood, and others preparing a whole feast inclusive of malloreddus and at times even lasagne (I know, that’s not very Sardinian at all); followed by suckling pig (quite possibly the most famous Sardinian dish), all accompanied by abundant Sardinian wines (Cannonau and Vermentino, but not only) and other stronger spirits such as Mirto.
While most families now opt to have Italian panettone or pandoro as a Christmas sweet, the most famous Sardinian Christmas sweet is the pan’e saba: every village has its own recipes and variations, but the base of this sweet bread is the wine must. It needs to be boiled for up to ten hours until it becomes a sticky syrup. Then, nuts, hazelnuts, raisins, or whatever the recipe calls for are added and the mixture is put into the oven. It sounds easy because I summed it up in a few lines, but in reality, making pan’e saba requires up to 4 days if you follow the traditional recipe and leavening times!
If you ever have the possibility to take part in a Christmas meal in Sardinia, rest assured you will not get hungry for two days afterward.
The weather during Christmas in Sardinia
Although winter in Sardinia can get quite bitter, the weather on the island can vary a lot depending on the location, with the coast being much warmer than the mountainous interior.
The weather in Cagliari is for some reason notoriously nice around Christmas, with sunny and warm days that call for a nice hike or simply a walk along the local Poetto beach, before heading for lunch.
While it certainly snows in Sardinia, a white Christmas is most definitely impossible along the coast (many of my childhood dreams of a white Christmas as seen in movies never came true!), while more of a possibility in the mountainous interior of Sardinia.