My friend, Georg is back and sharing some Italian Christmas traditions with us. The Italians start the Christmas season and decorating on the Day of the Immaculate Conception (December 8). Read on to see what other traditions are celebrated all over Italy during the holiday season.
The “mother” of all Italian Christmas traditions is the “Presepe” or “Presepio” (Nativity scenes), representing the birth of Jesus. Created by St. Francis in 1223, Nativity scenes appear every December in churches, homes and shops. Usually, Italians set them up on December 8th, during the fest of Immaculate Conception of Mary. In Milan, set up is one day earlier for the festivity of St Ambrose, patron saint of the city.
In the Churches, usually a statue of Jesus as a child is put on Presepe at the start of Midnight Mass; then, after the Mass, people go back home and put their baby Jesus in their Presepes. The adding of three Wisemen happens at the Epiphany (Jan 6). The Presepe is removed the Sunday after January 6th, at the solemnity of Jesus’s Baptism.
Like many countries, Italians set up their Christmas Trees, decorated with balls, lights, miniature Presepi, and even sweets. You may also see Christmas trees in the central squares of Italian cities. Gubbio hosts the biggest Christmas tree in the world.
Advent and Christmas Markets
Advent and Christmas markets are everywhere. Most are set up like Austrian Christmas markets. You’ll find artisan crafts, Christmas decorations, clothing, jewelery, sweets, hot wine (vin brulé) and other craftsman made items.
From the small mountainous region of Molise, the Zampognari (players of a Mediterranean low timbered bagpipe) come out to play Christmas carols. Besides playing outside in the square, they can be heard playing at private parties.
Father Christmas’s Castle By The Sea
If Father Christmas’s official house is in Rovaniemi, Finland, his seaside home is in Rapallo, near Genoa. During Advent and Christmas, the old castle of Rapallo (built in 1550) transforms and “Father Christmas” spends part of his holiday by the sea.
Traditionally a log is burnt in the fireplace. In the Genoa region, right before Christmas day, a laurel trunk is burned; if it burns well, the following year will be full of good fortune and health. You can sometimes find a log burning (confeugo) in the public square.
Every region has its traditions for Christmas lunch, but nearly everyone has stuffed turkey on the menu. In Milan, mostarda (fruits in a sweet and spicy syrup) is also common. Although it is sweet, it is not a dessert, but eaten along with turkey, much the way Americans do with cranberry sauce. Ravioli is served as the first course. In Venetia, they eat “bigoi” (hard egg pasta) with sardines and “polenta e scopeton.” In Naples (and in the south), everyone eats “O’ capitone” (female eel). Shaped similarly to a snake, it symbolises the tempter; eating it “kills” the devil and brings good fortune to the coming year.
There are many traditional sweets, depending on the region.
Lombardy and Southern Switzerland are famous for Panettone (think Italian fruitcake).
Torrone is a nougat confection made of honey, sugar, eggs, and toasted almonds.
Pandoro is a sweet vanilla yeast bread, shaped like a frustum; it is especially prevalent in Verona.
Stollen is another favorite fruit bread full of nuts, spices, and dried or candied fruit. It’s most common in South Tyrol and Trentino.
Pandolce or Genoa cake is fruitcake consisting of sultanas, currants or raisins, cherries, almonds and candied fruits. However, fruitcakes in all kinds variations are popular in Europe. American fruitcakes are just not up to snuff in comparison.
Struffoli is warm deep fried balls of dough about the size of a marble flavoured with honey. They are very popular in the south.
Christmas morning children find presents under the tree. Traditionally presents are said to be brought by the Christ Child or by “Father Christmas.” In Venetia and Eastern Lombardy, the presents are not given on Christmas day, but on St. Lucy day (the night of December 12th) by St Lucy.
In Milan, people open a small present on St. Ambrose Day (when the tree is set up) and save the rest of the gifts for Christmas morning.
The Befana, a legendary old woman, traveling on a broom, brings the last of the presents. She goes from house to house searching for the Christ Child. On Jan 6th she presents sweets in a stocking. However, if you have been naughty, you could end up with coal looking sweets.
‘Buon Natale’ (Merry Christmas)!
C’mon, share with us your country’s Christmas traditions. If you don’t celebrate Christmas what holiday do you participate in around this time of year?
For more posts about Italy, click here.