Christmas is a very religious time in Italy. Buon Natale CELEBRATING CHRISTMAS in ITALY A manger scene (presipio) is set up in each home. The Christmas season is filled with much singing and music. The streets, shops and homes are decorated. Fruit shaped decorations are seen everywhere.
For twenty-four hours before Christmas people fast (do not eat). This is followed by Christmas Eve dinner called a Cennone. This feast includes fish (no meat), pasta, vegetables, fresh fruits and special sweets and cakes.
Special prayers and church services called "novena" last for nine days prior to Christmas. Mass is celebrated on Christmas morning.
In certain parts of Italy the children hang their stockings near the head of the bed. An old lady is supposed to visit each child and leave sweetmeats or coal in the stocking (depending whether the child has been good or bad.)
The Epiphany (Feast of the Three Kings), on January 6th, is the last day of Christmas celebrations.
The Legend of La Befana
A woman was busily sweeping her house when the Three Wise Men came to her door. They said they were seeking the new King who was born in Bethlehem. When they asked her to show them the way, she replied that she was much too busy. Later, she felt sorry that she had not helped the Wise Men, so she set out after them. She searched and searched, but she never found them. Because La Befana felt so bad, she continues to travel throughout the country at Christmas time, searching for the Christ Child.
Italian children believe they get a visit from La Befana , a kind but ugly witch. She is dressed in a long black coat with a black scarf tied around her head. She brings gifts to each child on January 6th, which is the Epiphany (feast of the Wise Men). They believe that La Befana flies from house to house on a broomstick, slides down the chimney and fills the stockings of the good children with gifts, but leaves a lump of coal for the bad children.
Italian traditions in Italy are based heavily on the religion of
Christianity. Christmas starts eight days before Christmas and lasts
till after the Feast of Epiphany. Musical salutes are made at the shrine
of the Virgin Mary and songs are played at the homes of carpenters in
honor of St. Joseph. Eight days before Christmas, a special Novena of
prayers and church services begin. It all ends on Christmas Day. On
December 23rd, sometimes earlier, children dressed as shepherds with
sandals, leggings tied with crossing thongs, and wearing shepherds’
hats, go from house to house playing songs on shepherds’ pipes and
giving recitations. They receive money to buy Christmas treats. In
cities like Rome real shepherds sometimes carry out the performance.
A strict fast is observed 24 hours before Christmas after which a meal
with many dishes (but no meat) is served. The traditional Christmas
dinner, Cenone, is made up of spaghetti and anchovies, an
assortment of fish, fresh broccoli, tossed salad, fruits, and sweets.
A Yule log, the Ceppo, is burned, and toasts in wine and wishes for the
future are expressed. The Urn of Fate, an old Italian tradition, is a
large ornamental bowl that holds wrapped gifts for members of the
family. When the family gets together, each member takes his turn at
drawing a gift from the urn until all the presents are distributed.
The presepio (manger or crib) represents in miniature the Holy Family
in the stable and is the center of Christmas for families. Guests kneel
before it and musicians sing before it . The presepio figures are usually
hand-carved and very detailed in features and dress. The scene is
often set out in the shape of a triangle. This is a wooden frame
arranged to make a pyramid several feet high. Several tiers of thin
shelves are supported by this frame. It is entirely decorated with
colored paper, gilt pine cones, and miniature colored pennants. Small
candles are fastened to the tapering sides. A star or small doll is
hung at the apex of the triangular sides. The shelves above the
manger scene have small gifts of fruit,candy, and presents. The ceppo
is in the old Tree of Light tradition which became the Christmas tree
in other countries. Some houses even have a ceppo for each child in
From the Castle of Saint Angelo in Rome a cannon is fired to proclaim
the opening of the Holy Season. Each tries to outdo the other by
displaying the biggest presepio.
Children in Italy hang up their stockings on the Feast of the
Epiphany, January 6. They celebrate the visit of the Three Kings to
Bethlehem. Instead of Santa Claus, children are expecting Befana.
She is a witch-like character who rides around on a broom. The
legend is that the Three Wise Men, I re magi, stopped at Befana's hut to ask
directions on their way to Bethlehem and asked her to join them. She
said no, she was too busy. Later a shepherd asked her to join him in
paying respect to the Baby Jesus. Again, Befana said no. Later when it
was dark and she saw a great light in the skies, she thought perhaps
she should have gone with the Wise Men. So, she gathered some toys
that had belonged to her own baby, who had died, and ran to find the
kings and the shepherd. But Befana could not find them or the stable.
Now, each year she looks for the Christ Child. And each year since
she can not find him, she leaves the gifts for the good children of Italy
and pieces of charcoal for the bad ones..
No meat is eaten for twenty-four hours before Christmas Eve, but
there follows a meal as big as the family can afford. A special New
Year Banquet is eaten on the last day of the year, with raisin bread,
turkey, chicken, rabbit, and spaghetti. Champagne is the drink of the
Christmas, as it is celebrated in Italy, has two origins: the familiar traditions of Christianity blended with the pagan traditions predating the Christmas era. The greatest feast of the ancient Roman Empire, "Saturnalia" (a winter solstice celebration), just happens to coincide with the Christmas celebrations of the Advent. Consequently, Christmas fairs, merry-making and torch processions, honor not only the birth of Christ, but also the birth of the "Unconquered Sun." "Natale," the Italian word for Christmas, is literally the translation for "birthday."
A delightful, but rapidly disappearing tradition in Italy, is the ushering in of the coming festivities by the "Piferari" or fifers. They descend from the mountains of the Abruzzo and Latium playing inviting and characteristic tunes on their bagpipes, filling the air with anticipation for the joyous celebration to come.
Christmas Eve is a time for viewing Italy's artistic and elaborate manger scenes or Cribs. They consist of figurines, in clay or plaster , of the infant Jesus, Mary and Joseph. An ox and ass are nearby because legend has it that they warmed the child with their breath. It is around this basic focal point that individual artisans create their own intricate landscapes. There may be grottoes, small trees, lakes, rivers, the lights of "Bethlehem" in the background, angels hung from wires, and occasionally, even local heroes. The most beautiful Cribs are set up in churches. There is often a contest between churches of the same town for the best Crib. People go from church to church to view and compare the Cribs and displays.
Another tradition is the burning of the Yule log, which must stay alight until New Year's Day. This, again, is an example of pagan and Christian blending. The pagan belief explains the purifying and revitalizing power of fire, and that with the burning log, the old year and its evils are destroyed. Christian legend tells how the Virgin Mary enters the homes of the humble at midnight while the people are away at Midnight Mass and warms her newborn child before the blazing log.
Amidst the general merrymaking and religious observance of Christmas Eve, Christmas tapers (long slender candles) are lighted and a Christmas banquet is spread. In some places, Christmas Eve dinner consists largely of fish. There may be as many as 10 t 20 fish dishes prepared. In Rome, the traditional dish of Christmas Eve is "Capitone," a big female eel, roasted, baked or fried. North of Rome a traditional dish may be pork, sausage packed in a pig's leg, smothered in lentils, or turkey stuffed with chestnuts.
Common throughout Italy are the Christmas sweets: "panettone" (cake filled with candied fruit), "torrone" (nougat) and "panforte" (gingerbread) made with hazelnuts, honey and almonds. All Christmas sweets, as a rule, contain nuts and almonds. Peasant folklore theorizes that to eat nuts favors the fertility of the earth and aids in the increase of flocks and family. In ancient Rome, honey was offered at this time of year so that the new year might be sweet.
The Christmas season in Italy goes for three weeks, starting 8 days before Christmas known as the Novena. During this period, children go from house to house reciting Christmas poems and singing.
In some parts shepherds bring musical instruments into the villages, play and sing Christmas songs.
In the week before Christmas children go from house to house dressed as shepherds, playing pipes, singing and reciting Christmas poems. They are given money to buy presents.
A strict feast is observed for 24 hours before Christmas Eve, and is followed by a celebration meal, in which a light Milanese cake called panettone features as well as chocolate.
Presents and empty boxes, are drawn from the Urn of Fate - lucky dip, which always contains one gift per person. By twilight, candles are lighted around the family crib known as the Presepio, prayers are said, and children recite poems.
At noon on Christmas Day the pope gives his blessing to crowds gathered in the huge Vatican square.
In Italy the children wait until Epiphany, January 6, for their presents. According to tradition, the presents are delivered by a kind ugly witch called Befana on a broomstick. It was said that she was told by the three kings that the baby Jesus was born, she was busy and delayed visiting the baby.
She missed the Star lost her way and has been flying around ever since, leaving presents at every house with children in case he is there. She slides down chimneys, and fills stockings and shoes with good things for good children and it is said leaves coal for children who are not so good.
On christmas Eve the dinner is called cenone which is a traditional dish of eel.
Christmas lunch is Tortellini in Brodo which is filled pasta parcels in broth, also served is cappone which is boiled capon, or roasts are served in central Italy.
Another famous cake is pandoro which originated from Verona.
Holiday Season: On the Italian holiday calendar December 25 isn't the only special day. Throughout December and January there are a number of religious holidays to mark the season.
DECEMBER 6: La Festa di San Nicola - The festival in honor of St. Nicholas, the patron saint of shepherds, is celebrated in towns such as Pollutri with the lighting of fires under enormous cauldrons, in which fave (broad beans) are cooked, then eaten ceremoniously.
DECEMBER 8: L'Immacolata Concezione - celebration of the Immaculate Conception
DECEMBER 13: La Festa di Santa Lucia - St. Lucy's Day
DECEMBER 24: La Vigilia di Natale - Christmas Eve
DECEMBER 25: Natale - Christmas
DECEMBER 26: La Festa di Santo Stefano - St. Stephen's Day marks the announcement of the birth of Jesus and the arrival of the Three Wise Men
DECEMBER 31: La Festa di San Silvestro - New Year's Eve
JANUARY 1: Il Capodanno - New Year's Day
JANUARY 6: La Festa dell'Epifania - The Epiphany
Christmas in Italy may not look like Christmas back home, but it’s taken very seriously here and is an important holiday to all Italians. Christmas is “Natale” in Italian, and to wish people a Merry Christmas you’ll say, “Buon Natale.” Instead of images of Santa Claus everywhere, however, the Christmas image you’re going to see on display throughout the country - both in churches and outdoors - is the nativity scene. It’s called a “presepio” in Italian, and you’ll find them everywhere.
According to some, the very first nativity scene was, in fact, constructed in Italy in 1223 by St. Francis of Assisi - he wanted a way to involve the local people in the Christmas story, so he built a presepio in a cave near Assisi in the town of Greccio where he then held the Christmas Eve mass. Greccio continues the tradition to this day. Generally, presepi are assembled on December 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, with the baby Jesus added on Christmas Eve.
If you’re visiting Italy during the Christmas season (which lasts from December 8 through January 6), you can make a tour of presepi in just about every town you’ll visit. Naples is famous for the hundreds of nativity scenes throughout the city, Rome has an impressive selection, and the Vatican puts up a large presepio in St. Peter’s Square. One special nativity scene worth noting is in the town of Stiffe in Abruzzo, where a life-size manger scene is erected in a well-lit cave filled with stalactites and stalagmites, making it a unique and beautiful sight.
People do exchange gifts during the holiday season, but not in December. The most important part of the season is actually the Epiphany, celebrated on January 6, and this is when children hang stockings out and when most people exchange presents. An old woman on a broom, not Santa Claus in a sleigh, is responsible for bringing gifts on Epiphany - she’s called La Befana. The legend of La Befana goes like this:
According to the legend, the night before the Wise Men arrived at the manger they stopped at the shack of an old woman to ask directions.
They invited her to come along but she replied that she was too busy. Then a 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. Children hang their stockings on the evening of January 5 awaiting the visit of La Befana.
All this doesn’t mean that you won’t see a Santa-like figure in some places - although he’ll be called “Babbo Natale,” or Father Christmas. He won’t be as prevalent as you might be used to seeing, but he’ll be around, posing for pictures with children and spreading good cheer.
The traditional meal on Christmas Eve is meat-free (fish doesn’t count) and the traditional Christmas day meal is centered around meat. Christmas Eve masses are held in churches all over the country, usually at midnight, and many cities and towns have bonfires or public celebrations on Christmas Eve as well. Some places will string lights through town or put up brightly-decorated Christmas trees, but by far the more universal Christmas decoration is the presepio.
Northern Italian towns are also good for Christmas markets. These holiday markets are particularly popular in Germany, and the parts of Italy which are closest to Germany - especially the Trentino-Alto Adige region - are where you’ll find some of the best Christmas markets. Piazza Navona in Rome and Piazza Santa Croce in Florence are other sites with popular Christmas markets.
There are certain treats which are seasonal and only come out around the Christmas season - chief among them is the panettone from Milan (which is now popular throughout the country). It’s a sweet cake-like bread filled with candied fruit. You’re bound to see panettone in elaborate packaging in bakery windows leading up to the Christmas season. If you can, find a small one to bring home.
Even if you’re not particularly religious, there’s something very special about seeing a country pull out her holiday finery and put it on display. While Christmas is certainly a time for general celebration, it’s an important family holiday, so taking a vacation in Italy at Christmas might feel a bit like you’ve been invited into a friend’s home for the holiday. If you are religious, then making a trip to Vatican City for Christmas might be the realization of a life-long dream - so plan to be in St. Peter’s Square in time for the noon address by the Pope on Christmas Day.
Ms. Adventures in Italy has a great post about what went on in Milan in December 2007, including some Christmas-y events and some not-so-Christmas-y (some of them are annual events, so just check with the tourist information office when you’re there to find out the current schedule). Moving2Italy2 has collected a list of the Christmas markets in Italy, which are always a great excuse to pick up a few trinkets. This is also an interesting note about visiting the living nativity scenes in Italy. Also, don’t forget to read more information on what’s going on throughout Italy in December.
Best Websites Articles about christmas in italy
Christmas in Italy: Around the World at Santa's Net. Christmas in Italy a Christmas Tradition Around the World at Santas.Net Home of everything to do with christmas and Santa Claus and How Christmas
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