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Buon Natale! The Typical Italian Christmas Celebration

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Holidays in Italy can be quite an experience, and many visitors to the country look forward to having a taste of the Italian Christmas season. Unfortunately, there are those who think that in Italy, it isn’t “Christmas-y enough” and they are left with the impression that Italians are less typical-italian-christmas-celebration-family-gatheringenthusiastic about the holiday compared to their American counterparts. It is possible that this idea is brought about by a perceived lack of the bright lights and décor that we normally associate Christmas festivities with. This is an inaccurate assessment, however, because the Italians DO love this holiday a lot, and in fact even spend almost an entire month celebrating it!

You heard that right. Unlike most countries where Christmas ends on December 25, for the Italians, the celebrations begin on December 8, on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, when the decorations in the streets and in the home start coming up and the Christmas markets open for business. The season then only officially ends on January 6, on the day of the Epiphany. Also, though Italians may not put as much emphasis on decorations, this is because their Christmas celebrations are more family-centric, and a majority of the preparations are focused inside the home, within the family circle.

So for those who are planning to spend Christmas in Italy, here are some of the local customs and traditions you need to know about to truly get that holiday feel in this lovely country!

The Three Feasts of Christmas

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In a lot of other countries, the highlight of the Christmas festivities is usually the Christmas Eve feast. In Italy, however, a country that is known for their food, expect to participate in THREE main feasts.

typical-italian-christmas-celebration-scampi-shrimp-seafoodThe first is, of course, on Christmas Eve, also known as La Vigilia (The Vigil) or Cenone, which precedes the Midnight Mass (if you’re in Rome, chances are that this mass will be celebrated by the Pope himself). However, unlike in other countries where Christmas roasts and hams are the stars of the spread, in Italy, people actually abstain from meat at this time.

Instead, Italians have the Festa dei sette pesci, or the Feast of the Seven Fishes. As the name suggests, though there isn’t any meat on the menu, fish and seafood are in abundance, and there are usually seven seafood dishes to choose from at the table. Popular choices of seafood include kale, shrimp, salt cod, smelts, eels, squid, octopus, lobster, sardines, tuna, salmon, mussels, and clams.

The second feast happens on December 25, on Christmas Day lunch. If anything, this is considered as the most important meal of the season, and the affair could last for an entire day. This is because this is THE day when large groups of families and friends get together to celebrate. On this day, the host of the party takes out the best cutlery, dinnerware, and tablecloths to be used and admired by the guests. Also, meat is back on the menu, and antipasto witPanettone cake for Christmas - traditional Italian Christmas cakeh cured meat, olives, and cheese is usually served, followed by various types of pasta in delicious meat sauces such as Bolognese, besciamella, or ragù. Cannelloni with different fillings is also a favorite. As if there wasn’t enough food already, the pasta is succeeded by a second course of meat, usually consisting of braised beef or roasted veal, or maybe roast chicken.

Last but not least, is the St. Stephen’s Day lunch on December 26. On this day, even more relatives and friends are invited or expected to show up. This is a perfect time to reconnect, perhaps exchange presents, and do some catching up with people you haven’t seen in a while. The difference with the Christmas Day lunch, though, is that on this day, the dishes tend to be simpler and more laid back (but no less delicious). A lot of households usually take this time to slow down after the frenzy of preparations and cooking that had to be done over the past two days. Instead of slaving away in the kitchen again, it isn’t uncommon for people to just enjoy the leftovers from yesterday’s party, or maybe just go to a restaurant.

And yes, in all of these feasts, the Italian Christmas cake, the panetonne, is bound to make an appearance as it is a tradition in itself, along with the usual winter staples.

The Urn of Fate

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Image Credit: ctgpublishing.com

Always a pleasant family treat, it is a custom where small gifts and tokens are wrapped and then placed in a large bowl or vase. Afterwards, family members and guests take turns in picking out a present from the bowl, and this continues until the bowl is empty. This is meant to be a quick pick-me-up, as you wait for the good witch La Befana to arrive with your real present on the day of the Epiphany.

Ceppo

In Italy, a “ceppo” can mean two things, both of which are Christmas-related. The first is a traditional Yule log that is burned on the hearth by the head of the family, while everyone else sings Christmas songs and toast with wine. The log remains in the hearth until New Year, when it is finally burned completely, and its ashes are gathered for use as protection charms for the home.

The second type of “ceppo” is more of a minimalist Christmas tree, where a wooden frame that’s several feet high is put together to form a triangular shape. The triangle frame supports several tiertypical-italian-christmas-celebration_Zampognaris of small “shelves”. At the bottom of this pyramid is usually a small nativity scene, while the shelves above it are lined by small items, such as tokens, fruit, candy, and small presents. Candles are usually fastened to the left and right corner of the triangular frame, and at the top is hung a star or a small doll. The rest of the frame is then decorated with colored or shiny paper, gilt pine cones, as well as small colored pennants. In some households, a ceppo is built for each child in the family.

The Music of the Zampognari and Pifferai

Some people hear sleigh bells during the Christmas season, but in Italy, expect to hear bagpipes, oboes, and flutes instead, particularly in Sicily, Southern Italy, Rome and surrounding areas. You’ll see these musicians just walking around in the streets as they play their cheerful holiday music, while wearing traditional costumes. This is a throwback to the times when the shepherds in the mountains of Abruzzi would come down to the cities to entertain crowds gathered at religious shrines. Children also take part in this, and on December 23 or sometimes earlier, kids dressed as shepherds go from house to house giving recitations and playing tunes on shepherds’ pipes. They are then given a small amount of money for buying treats.

The Presepi, or Nativity Scenes

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Though some foreigners may think that the Italians don’t have enough Christmas lights or trees during the holiday season, what the Italians DO have is the Presepi that are displayed both in homes at the bottom of a ceppo, and in churches and piazzas. These nativity scenes tend to be very detailed and ornate, and are made by hand using traditional techniques. This is particularly prevalent in Naples where the presepi are thought to have originated from, and which has entire streets of workshops dedicated solely to creating presepi. The figures in the scene usually consist of the holy family, shepherds, farm animals, the three magi, zampognari, and sometimes, even famous local personalities or politicians!

La Befana, the Good Witch

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While a lot of cultures hope for a visit from Santa Claus on Christmas Eve, Italian children look forward to seeing La Befana instead, who is thought to arrive during Epiphany, or January 6. She is pretty much the female version of Santa, and according to legend, La Befana was an old woman whose hut was visited by the Three Magi. They were asking for directions to Bethlehem and they invited her to join them, but she refused. Later, a shepherd invited her to come with him to Bethlehem again to see the infant Jesus, but once more, she said no. Later that night, she saw a bright star in the sky, and she finally realized that she should have joined the Three Magi. She then gathered some old toys which used to belong to her child who died, and she set out to follow the others to Bethlehem.

Unfortunately, La Befana got lost and could not find the stable where Christ was born, so every year, she continues her search for the holy typical-italian-christmas-celebration-presents2infant. Since she still couldn’t find him, she instead leaves presents and candy in the stockings left out for her by the good children of Italy, while she leaves coal for the bad ones (it’s actually still a lump of candy called il carbone, which is made of black sugar). Though many Italians also have taken to Santa, La Befana remains a popular figure, and children look forward to the evening of the Epiphany.

The Time to Open Christmas Presents Varies

While many are accustomed to opening presents on Christmas morning, in Italy, the timing for this enjoyable ritual tends to vary, depending on which region you happen to be in. Most still exchange presents on December 25, after Christmas lunch, while in some smaller cities in Northern Italy, they believe that the blind Saint Lucia is the one who brings gifts to children on her feast day, December 13. Others still wait for Epiphany, January 6, when La Befana comes around with her presents instead.

Christmas Ends in January

Twelve days after Christmas and almost a week past New Year, the Christmas season in Italy only officially ends on January 6, on the Epiphany. On this day, cities usually reserve the main piazzas for children where there are children’s shows, puppets, games, contests, and other fun activities. Later that evening, there is one last dinner feast to mark the end of the season. The next day, expect the Christmas markets to begin packing up, and towns will start taking down decorations.

So there you have it! If you’re ever in Italy during this most festive season, just sit back and enjoy the joyful family atmosphere!

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By Priscila Siano (266 Posts)

Priscila Siano is the Marketing Director of Tour Italy Now, an online tour operator specializing in Italy travel. She's a respected expert on making dream Italy vacations a reality for clients.

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