By Joe Cannavo
Christmas is a major holiday in Italy, and Italians celebrate with an abundance of great, unique Christmas traditions. All over Italy, Christmas tends to center on the family. It is a time to stay at home with loved ones and enjoy traditional family meals that include the extraordinary specialties of the season. However, customs also vary from city to city, from exactly which dishes are served to when to open presents, making every region an interesting place to enjoy the holidays.
Unlike the United States with its overly commercialized Christmas that sadly starts before Halloween and has turned Thanksgiving from a family-centric holiday into one of the busiest shopping days of the year, it is the day when decorations go up both on the streets and inside Italian homes and when some Christmas markets start. Decorations and huge Christmas trees can be found in main piazzas, like in front of the Coliseum or in Milan’s Piazza Duomo, and Babbo Natale, Father Christmas, the Italian version of Santa Claus, spreads holiday cheer after the Halloween ghost and hobgoblins have departed.
Regarding the significance of the feast of the Immaculate Conception, it is both religious and state-sanctioned with most offices and businesses closed. It doesn’t have anything to do with the day of Mary’s conception. Instead, it celebrates the day when the church decided that Mary was born without having the stain of original sin and not an indication that Mary was pregnant for only three weeks!
The eight days before Christmas, also known as the Novena, are filled with carolers singing traditional songs around the neighborhood. If you’re in Rome, southern Italy or Sicily, keep an eye out for the zampognari, bagpipe players who travel from the nearby mountains to play their merry folklore carols, especially at the presepi, the traditional nativity scene.
Along with the fancy lights, wreaths and trees, nativity scenes are displayed in many churches and piazzas. Crafting these ornate works of art by hand remains an artisanal tradition in many parts of the country. If you want to go to the source, head to Naples; the southern Italian city is world-famous for hand-made nativity scenes. It still has whole streets with one workshop after another devoted to the craft, San Gregorio Armeno.
Although it is more tradition-based rather than medical, to prepare and purify their bodies for Christmas Day, Italians avoid meat on Christmas Eve. Although the idea is to eat lean, most indulge on multiple courses of fish, sometimes as many as seven! After the family dinner, many Italians head to midnight Mass at their local church to celebrate and some Romans even head to the Vatican for Mass with the pope! But traditions vary from city to city: Up north, in Cortina d’Ampezzo in the Dolomite Mountains, thrill-seekers ski down the slopes with torches at midnight to welcome Christmas.
After what Italians refer to as a “light” Christmas Eve dinner, on Christmas Day, Italians invite their family and friends for a large lunch that usually goes on all day.
Many save up to have the most lavish celebration possible, serving up traditional dishes like pasta in broth, roasts and traditional desserts like panettone.
In Italy where family values and traditions have not yet been polluted by commercialism, Christmas festivities don’t end on Dec. 25. Celebrations often extend into Dec. 26 with the national holiday of Santo Stefano; families get together and eat leftover Christmas dishes and sweets. The official end of the Christmas season, though, isn’t until Jan. 6, the Day of the Epiphany, and the twelfth day of Christmas. On the eve of the Epiphany, families usually prepare a large dinner to mark the end of the holiday season; children are given candy or coal, usually made of black sugar, depending on if they were naughty or nice. After Jan. 6, you’ll see Christmas markets close and decorations start to come down.
Finally, ask an Italian when his/her family opens gifts, and it might give you a clue to where that person is from! Gifts are commonly exchanged on Christmas Day after lunch —sometimes with the belief that Jesus has delivered them. But some smaller, northern Italian cities believe that the blind St. Lucia brings gifts for children on Dec. 13, her feast day, so they open them that morning. Other families may wait until Jan. 6. The Epiphany is when la Befana, the kind of “good witch” who is believed to have followed the wise men, but got lost drops off presents. La Befana is a particular tradition in Rome and Bologna, where the main piazzas often host fun activities for children; in Venice, locals believe that la Befana arrives every year by boat.
Regardless of when they open their presents, many Italians keep their wrapped