Greetings: “Buon Natale” for Merry Christmas and “Buon Feste” for Happy Holidays!
Christmas is a very important holiday in Italy; in fact, the very roots of our modern holiday were born here. You won’t see images of Santa Claus throughout the country but what you will see in churches and outdoors is the nativity scene called a “presepio” in Italian, and you will find them everywhere. Naples is famous for the hundreds of nativity scenes on display throughout the city and Rome has an impressive selection. The Vatican displays a large presepio in St. Peters Square. A special nativity is put up in the city of Abruzzo, where a life-size manger scene is erected in a well-lit cave filled with stalactites and stalagmites (natural column formations), making it a beautiful and unique sight.
Christmas, the Feast of the Nativity, was decreed by Emperor Aurelian in A.D. 274 to take place on December 25th of each year. Although many bible historians believe that Jesus’s birth took place in the spring, early Roman Christians felt it important to create a feast day that coincided with the many pagan celebrations that had always taken place during the winter solstice.
The first nativity scene was created by Giovanni Vellita in the year 1224. It was requested by St. Francis of Assisi because he wanted to involve the local people in the Christmas story. He built a presepio in a cave near Assisi in the town of Greccio using live animals where he then held Christmas Mass. This tradition is still alive today in Greccio. Presepi are assembled on December 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, and the baby Jesus is added on Christmas Eve.
The Christmas season in Italy traditionally begins on December 8 and lasts through January 6, Epiphany. Gifts are exchanged during the holiday season and children may receive gifts from “Babbo Natale,” or Father Christmas on December 25th. Today many Italians open presents on Christmas morning or afternoon but tradition is to wait until Epiphany, which for many is the most important part of the season. On January 5th, the 11th day of Christmas, children hang their stockings hoping that La Bafana, the kind witch will stuff them with more gifts and treats.
The Legend of La Bafana
Legend has it that the night before the Wise Men arrived at the manger they stopped at the shack of an old woman to ask for directions. They invited her to come along but she replied that she was too busy. The shepherd asked her to join him but again she refused. Later that night, she saw a great light in the sky and decided to join the Wise Men and the shepherd bearing gifts that had belonged to her child who had died. She got lost and never found the manger. Now La Befana flies around on her broomstick each year on the 11th night, bringing gifts to children in hopes that she might find the Baby Jesus.
Christmas Eve masses are held around the country and at midnight, many cities and towns have bonfires or public celebrations. In some places lights will be strung throughout the city and there will be brightly decorated Christmas trees, but the more common decoration is the presepio. You will see a Santa-like figure in some places, but he’ll be called “Babbo Natale,” or Father Christmas. His popularity won’t match that of Santa Claus, but he will be there spreading good cheer to all.
Noted Traditions by Region
Traditions in Italy vary by region, with some of the most noted being the bagpipe and flute musicians called zampognari and pifferai in Rome, Naples and southern Italy. They wear colorful traditional costumes with sheepskin vests, white stockings and dark cloaks. Many travel from the mountains of the Abruzzo region to play outside churches and in popular city squares.
Torino is well know for its lights, with over 20 kilometers (just over 12 miles) of streets and squares illuminated by some of the best illumination artists in Europe from late November through Early January.
In 1991, the Guinness Book of World Records named an 800 meters tall (over 2600 feet!) Christmas tree, made up of 450 brightly colored lights above Gubbio, Umbria “The World’s Tallest Christmas Tree.” The tree is 400 meters wide (over 1300 feet) topped by a star that can be seen for nearly 50 kilometers (31 miles). It’s lit on December 7th, the Eve of the Immaculate Conception.
The island of Murano in Venice, know worldwide for its glassware, displayed a seven meter tall tree of glass built by glass master Simone Cenedese in 2006. They hold an annual program of decorations called Natale di Vetro, Christmas in glass.
Saint Peter’s Square in Vatican City holds a popular Midnight Mass attended by many from all over Italy and around the world.
The Festival of Christmas Torches is celebrated on Christmas Eve. Carols and torchlight processions are held in memory of the shepherds from the first Christmas Eve.
In The Alps, a skier’s torchlight parade is held at midnight on Christmas Eve with hundreds of people skiing down the Alpine peaks carrying torches.
On Christmas Eve in Umbria a group of canoeists, each dressed as Babbo Natale (Father Christmas), with their canoes illuminated by lights, make their way along the Tiber River to the bridge at Porta San Florido where a presepio is suspended above the water. When they emerge from the water, they give small presents to the children gathered there waiting.
In Lago Trasimeno, also in Umbria, Christmas is celebrated with Soul Christmas, The Umbria Gospel Festival, December 8 – January 6.
In Northern Italy, Christmas markets similar to Christkindlmarkts in Germany are popular. These markets are especially popular in the regions of Italy closest to Germany such as the Trentino-Alto Adige region where you will find some of the best Christmas markets. Piazza Navona in Rome and Piazza Santa Croce in Florence are also popular Christmas market sites.
Christmas feasts and specialties vary by region but the traditional meal on Christmas Eve is meat-free (not including fish) and the traditional Christmas meal is centered around meat.
In Naples and Southern Italy, the Christmas Eve dinner of seven fish dishes is common. A traditional Italian feast might include Christmas broccoli or spinach, many versions of pasta dishes, a roast which might include a guinea hen or other game bird, fried eel, baked fish, lobster or fish salad. Baked pasta such as lasagna or timpano is popular on Christmas day along with fish, capon, turkey, caponata and dessert.
Some treats only come out at Christmastime; chief among them is the Pannettone from Milan. This sweet cake-like bread filled with delicious fruit is popular throughout the country and around the world. Another famous treat is the Pandoro from Verona, which is an airy buttery cake. Other dessert treats include marzipan fruit, nuts and dried fruits such as dates and figs. Of course dinner is topped off with a good Italian wine and a superb Asti for dessert.