Italy being the abode of the Pope, the head of Roman Catholicism, celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ with great religious fervor. The celebration starts eight days before Christmas with special Novenas in churches. Virgin Mary is greatly revered and songs are sung in the homes of carpenters to honor St. Joseph. The Italians avoid meat for 24 hours before Christmas to purify their bodies before Christmas. They are that religious!
December 8th, which is celebrated as the Day of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, marks the onset of the Italian Christmas celebrations. The streets and the houses are decorated and the Christmas markets turn up all over the country.
The following eight days are days of prayer, music and merriment. Special Novenas are conducted in churches. People go about singing traditional carols. This is the time of Zampognari, the mountain people who come down from Abruzzo region with their bagpipe music. Putting on the costume of shepherds, they play in the city squares and churches.
But if you decide to go deep into the traditions and rituals connected with Christmas, you are in for a surprise. Everything about the festival depends on the region. At the end, you will see that every region in Italy celebrates Christmas in its own unique way.
Nativity Crib Scene or Presepe
The main event and symbol of the Italian Christmas is the Nativity crib. The nativity crib was introduced in Naples as early as 1025. This tradition was further popularized by Francis of Assisi. But till the 16th century, these cribs were constructed only in churches and monasteries in connection with Christmas celebrations. However, from the 16th century, it was made a part of homely Christmas celebrations and the tradition continues till date.
The cribs will be made by the 8th of December and all the figures and decorations except the Infant Jesus figure are placed in them. The Infant figurine will be placed only on the 24th night.
The nativity scenes of Naples are world famous because they are elaborate and huge structures. Apart from the Christmas figures, a lot of natural scenery and contemporary life are also included in them. There is a whole street in Naples, namely 'Via San Gregorio Armeno', which is specially set apart for nativity scene exhibition.
Sometimes a triangular structure is constructed to display the nativity scene. It is called a ‘Nativity pyramid’. It has several tiers. The nativity scene is placed on the lowest tier and the tiers above are decorated with fruits and sweets and gifts. A star is placed on the apex of the pyramid representing the star of Bethlehem.
Meat is avoided on Christmas Eve. Multiple courses of sea food are consumed instead. The meal on the 23rd of December is an inexpensive simple meal. Usually there is a midnight mass, which is attended by staunch Christians.
The enormous meal is the main event on the Christmas day. The dishes included in the meal differ from region to region. This is a great family event. All the family members come together to eat the sumptuous Christmas feast. In some regions gifts are exchanged after the dinner. The 26th of December is celebrated as the second day of Christmas and the family gets together once again to finish off the leftover food from the Christmas day.
This is a tradition in which a large log is left burning throughout Christmas season. The log selected varies from country to country. Anyway, a long piece of log is burnt in the fireplace. These logs are sometimes sprinkled with wine to make it sweet smelling and dipped in different chemicals to give color to the flames. The left over log is preserved and it is used to light the fresh log in the following year. A replica of the Yule log is done in chocolate and used as a dessert during Christmas.
Christmas season is prolonged to the 6th of January, which is the 12th day of Christmas. It is believed that it was on this day the three wise men came with gifts to see the Holy Infant. So it is on this day the children receive gifts from a benign witch called La Befana. They hang their stockings to receive the gifts and the good children will be gifted with sweets and the naughty ones with pieces of coal.
Italian Christmas Traditions from Various Regions
Pope conducts the mid night mass in the Saint Peter’s basilica, which is witnessed by the multitude from the square by means of a giant TV. After that he delivers the Christmas message from the window of his apartment. The square will be resplendent with a large Christmas tree and a huge nativity installation.
Torino & Verona
These two cities are illuminated magnificently during the Christmas season. The light displays are installed by the best artists in the field from all over Europe. As a result, every building and street will be blazing with light.
This is in Italy’s Umbria region. Here lights up the world’s most unique Christmas tree. This tree is made of electric bulbs. The installation is made along the mountain slope to form a huge Christmas tree which is 650 meters tall and made up of innumerable bulbs. This is visible from a distance of 50 kilometers away. This tree is lighted up by the Pope using remote control on the 7th of December.
Christmas Eve on River Tiber
An amazing procession takes place on the Christmas Eve in Città di Castello in Umbria on the river Tiber. A group of canoeists dress up in Santa’s get-up and proceed in a procession in their canoes decorated with lights to a bridge in Porta San Florido where a crib is suspended over water. Reaching there they distribute sweets and presents among children there.
People in Abbadia di San Salvatore go in a torch light procession on the Christmas Eve, imitating the shepherds who came to visit the Infant Jesus. The skiers in Cortina d'Ampezzo ski down the Alps with lighted torches to present a flowing procession.
Italy celebrates Christmas with great pomp and show. It is a time of religious sentiments enhanced with top class merry making and festivity.
by Marina Chernyak