Every country has its own Christmas traditions. If you’re British, like me, you’re probably elbow-deep in card-writing, tinsel and fir tree needles by now….and the cat is probably eying up the tree! If you’re Australian, maybe you’re getting the BBQ ready for the beach on Christmas Day. And if you’re American you’re probably still getting over Thanksgiving and Black Friday. But have you ever stopped to wonder where these traditions came from or what other countries do? Well, here are 8 fascinating facts about Natale in Italy to get you in the festive mood!
- Christmas starts on 8th December
Italians kick off the count down to Christmas with the Immacolata, the religious Feast of the Immaculate Conception on 8th December. The day is a national holiday with banks and some offices closing as the faithful attend church to celebrate the conception of Mary herself, rather than Jesus. A cannon is fired from the Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome to announce the opening of the religious festivities with celebrations including parades, bonfires and fireworks whilst the Pope holds prayers in Piazza di Spagna, Rome, placing a garland of flowers on a statue of the Madonna.
This is also the day when many Italians start putting up their decorations and fairy lights and many Christmas markets open (although many are already underway).
- Presepi or Nativity scenes
The presepe or nativity scene is one of the most cherished parts of an Italian Christmas with presepi popping up all over the place. The idea of a crib scene actually started in Italy back in the 13th century when St Francis of Assisi asked a local villager to create a manger to help re-enact the nativity. Since then nativity scenes have become a big part of Italian Christmas folk art and handmade presepi remain a key artisanal tradition.
Bellaria Igea Marina, for example, on the Adriatic coast of Emilia-Romagna displays over 20 nativities around town, all created in old wine barrels or tini.
And just along the Romagnola riviera coast there are presepi made from sand in Torre Pedrera.
Or if you’re down in Naples why not check out Via San Gregorio Armeno, the world-famous street of the nativity scene makers in the historic city centre where cribs can be bought all year round.
3. Christmas tree, O Christmas tree
Italians may not have invented the Christmas tree – credit for that goes to the Germans – but they’ve certainly taken the idea to their hearts. However, with over 60 million fir trees grown each year in Europe alone, Italians have come up with some novel new twists on the idea.
The people of Gubbio in Umbria, for example, hold the record for the largest albero di Natale in the world but no trees are harmed in the making of it as it is constructed entirely from lights! The giant tree of Gubbio was first erected in 1981 on the slopes of Mount Ingino to honour the town’s patron saint Ubaldo. Using more than 550 multicolored lights and with a 1 metre high star on top, the tree stands at an enormous 650 meters high and has held the Guinness World Record since 1991. The tree lights are switched on each year on the 7th December, the eve of the Immaculate Conception. And this year Pope Francis did the honours firing the switch via video link from Rome. The tree is lit from dusk each day until January 10th, just after Epiphany.
On Murano, the glass-making maestros of Venice also make their own Christmas tree, but instead of using lights they use glass to showcase their expertise and craftsmanship.
And the folks down in the little town of Calimera, Puglia, have been known to build their eco-tree from over 3500 recycled plastic bottles collected by the residents throughout the year. They believe that the spirit of the festive season obliges them to be kinder over the coming year, not only to neighbours but also to the planet that is home to us all.
Alternatively if you want a bit of real green life in the house, a lot of Italians opt for the Stella di Natale or Poinsettia pot plant. The shape of its flowers is thought to represent the star of Bethlehem whilst the red leaves are the blood of Christ and the white ones his purity. It brings a bit of colour into the winter home and you’ll see market stalls full of the symbolic plants in the run up to celebrations.
4. Christmas Carols
I love going carol singing, don’t you, but did you know the tradition goes back thousands of years to pagan times? Originally people would sing songs and dance round stone circles to celebrate the winter solstice. In fact carols were sung throughout the year at festive times and the word comes from the Latin for a circle dance or choraula.
The first churches merged pagan and Christian celebrations and as early as 129 AD worshippers were singing songs at Christmas services in Rome. But the first Christian carols were sung in Latin and weren’t very popular.
It wasn’t until the 13th century that these festive songs really caught on after St Francis of Assisi introduced nativity songs, sung in the local dialects, to engage parishioners with the story of Jesus’s birth along with the crib scenes. The new carols were popular and quickly spread across Europe. And today Italians continue the tradition, singing carols in front of nativity scenes during the 8 days running up to Christmas known as the Novena (16th to 24th Dec). Keep an eye out for the traditional shepherd bagpipers or zampognari, who accompany the carol singers too, especially in Rome, Southern Italy or Sicily, heralding the start of holy festivities.
- Christmas bonuses all round!
December is the month when Italians look forward to the tredicesima, an extra month’s wages to put towards the cost of Christmas! Many public and private employees are eligible along with pensioners and this year the bonus is expected to cost the nation around €30 billion for 33 million people with €10 billion coming from the state. Now that’s what I call a Christmas present!
- The Yule log
In the UK the only yule log we are familiar with is a log shaped chocolate cake. In Italy however, it is traditional in many homes to choose a log, the ceppo, large enough to burn all night through from la vigilia through to Natale. Alternatively some families will have a ceppo for each child in the family. A bowl, the urn of fate, is often placed on the hearth in front of the log. In some families the bowl contains a lucky dip of presents for all the family to be unwrapped in the morning on the 25th. For others like our friend Nonna Violante from Bellaria Igea Marina, the bowl contains water that she believes will be blessed by the Madonna overnight. Each member of the family then washes their eyes and face in the water first thing in the morning to receive the blessing of Mary. What a lovely way to start the day.
- Celebrating with food and family
Across Italy, Natale is a family-centric holiday and a time to celebrate at home with loved ones. Thousands of Italians travel home to their parents for the holidays, with the train and autostrada networks bearing the brunt of extra traffic in the run up to Christmas.
And when it comes to celebrating an Italian Christmas food is an essential part of the proceedings. Up and down the country mammas, zias (aunts) and nonnas (grandmothers) spend days preparing pasta, sweet breads and all manner of dishes for the Vigilia (Christmas Eve), Natale and the festa di Santo Stefano, otherwise known as boxing day.
In line with most religious festivals Italians typically avoid meat on the day before Christmas in order to purify themselves. The idea is to eat a clean and lean meal – il cenone – which for a lot of families will mean fish and vegetables although the evening meal can run to six or even seven courses before the family heads off to midnight mass. It’s not exactly what you might call lean eating and we’ve not even got to 25th December yet!
The festive lunch often kicks off after the Pope’s midday blessing of the crowds in St Peter’s Square with tortellini in brodo (pasta in broth), followed by eel, roast meats or turkey as we would in the UK or America and several courses in between. It can last all day with dessert coming in the shape of sweet breads like pannetone, biscuits like ricchiarelli and nutty pastries to round off the merriments. If you’re down south in Calabria, you might also notice that the table isn’t cleared straight away as the food is traditionally left for the Madonna and child. With foodie celebrations continuing through Santo Stefano, New Year’s eve and on to Epiphany on 6th January you’d better be ready for a food marathon!
- Christmas presents, Babbo Natale & La Befana
The big beardy guy in red has lots of different names around the world including Santa Claus, Kriss Kringle, St Nicholas or Pere Noel but here in Italy we call him Babbo Natale. But whilst Babbo Natale is gaining in popularity, he hasn’t traditionally delivered presents until recently. Instead children are told that their presents come from Jesus or their parents and are taught to be thankful to their family. Everyone exchanges presents as a gesture of love and appreciation although increasingly Babbo Natale is taking a greater role.
Italian present-giving also differs from region to region. Some northern Italians believe that St Lucia brings gifts on December 13th. Others wait for a more traditional figure – La Befana – who is popular throughout the country although she doesn’t deliver until Epiphany on the 6th January.
The story goes that the old lady, dressed as a witch on a broomstick, was stopped by the 3 wise men asking for directions. La Befana was not able to show them the way but instead provided food and shelter before the men went on their way, inviting her to come with them as they left. The old dear declined saying she had too much housework to do, but later set off after the wise men with presents for the baby Jesus. According to legend, however, she never found the child and is still searching, flying around on her broomstick. So on January 6th she leaves presents in children’s stockings including sweets for well behaved little ones or a piece of coal or garlic for naughty ones. Just think, if you’re good you might get presents from Babbo Natale, your parents, and La Befana! Not a bad haul for a good behaviour eh?
In the meantime, Venetians mark Epiphany with a gondola race, each boat being rowed by a retired gondolier or Bucintoro rowing club member dressed as La Befana – if you’re in town, make sure you head down to the Grand Canal for a hot chocolate and to cheer the old witches on in the morning!
So as we count down to the big day you can see Christmas festivities vary across the Italian peninsula with many local traditions holding strong for centuries. If you celebrate it, how do you prepare? Have you written to Babbo Natale yet, put up a tree or presepe, or started stocking up the kitchen with enough food to feed the entire family for the next few weeks? Maybe the Italian ideas sound more appealing than your usual revelries and you’re heading to Italy for Christmas? Or maybe you just want some help with how to wish your Italian friends a happy Christmas in their mother tongue? Why not leave me a comment with your recollections of happy Christmases gone by. And whether you observe the celebrations or not, may I take this opportunity to wish you and yours happy holidays, or Buone feste!