Christmas Traditions in Italy
This is a country that revels in its perpetual holidays and festivals. And this is a country unabashedly proud that its culture is so defined by its religious faith.
This is Italy – a mountainous country of 60 million people which charmingly resembles a sideways boot. Located along the northern Mediterranean sea, it is home to an overwhelming majority of Roman Catholics.
They begin their year of festivals with Carnevale, which means “goodbye to meat” and fittingly opens the Lenten season, when Catholics historically do not eat meat. There is the jubilation of Easter, the most significant holiday on the calendar, which celebrates the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In mid-August, Italians mark the ascension of the Virgin Mary into heaven on Assumption Day with a festival called Ferragosto, when they carry statues of her and sing songs in her honor throughout village streets. The country’s Catholics honor their patron saint, St. Francis of Assisi, on Oct. 4, then bow their heads in prayer on Festa dei Morti, or All Souls’ Day, on Nov. 2 and again on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, on Dec. 8.
But aside from Bethlehem – the site of Jesus’ birth – there is arguably no holier place in the world to be than in Rome, Italy, during Christmastime as thousands of Italians make what for many people is an annual pilgrimage to the Vatican.
The leader of the Roman Catholic Church, the pope, lives in the Vatican in Rome, so it stands to reason that the city is considered the pulse of the Roman Catholic faith and the scene of daily – and sometimes impromptu – celebrations of Jesus’ birth in the weeks before Christmas.
Italy, and especially Rome, has been analogous with the Roman Catholic Church since shortly after Jesus’ death. Catholics believe that Peter, one of Jesus’ disciples, traveled to Rome and died there in the name of his faith, thereby becoming a martyr. (He was thought to be crucified by his enemies, though he apparently asked to be turned upside down to differentiate the manner of Jesus’ crucifixion.) Catholics believe that the wondrous St. Peter’s Basilica was built directly over Peter’s tomb.
As the most revered house of worship among Roman Catholics, the lavish basilica features work from some of the greatest architects of the Renaissance in what was at one time considered somewhat competing styles of marble, reliefs, sculpture and gilding. At Christmas, the basilica is aglow with Advent candles, garland and poinsettias – making it a tremendous source of Italian pride.
People around the world who watch this familiar Christmas scene on television may know that St. Peter’s Basilica is Vatican City’s most prominent if not resplendent building. But only “true Italians” know that the Vatican is really not a city at all; since 1929, it has actually been a tiny, independent country covering only 110 acres.
Italians like to say that the Vatican is the only nation in the world that can literally lock its doors and gates at night – only to open them in the morning for Catholics who wish to light a candle or say a prayer in honor of the Christmas season.
Given Italians’ reverence for the birth and life of Christ, it’s appropriate that their country is the genesis of the manger scene, or presepio, which St. Francis is credited with elevating to a fixture of prayer and worship.
San Francesco, as Italians call him, visited Bethlehem and the actual stable where Jesus was believed to have been born. With this imagery in mind, he was able to return to Italy and help Italian families recreate the scene – and tell the story of Jesus’ birth – with great clarity and detail.
Today, the city of Naples remains especially famous for its presepios, or cribs, as they are also known. An entire street of nativity makers, called the Via San Gregorio Armeno, also is home to the largest nativity scene in the world, with more than 600 people, animals and other figures.
The presepio also plays a role in the Italians’ version of the Christmas tree, the ceppo. Made of wood, the ceppo resembles a ladder, with shelves linking the two sides. The bottom shelf of the ceppo often features a presepio while the other shelf holds gifts, decorations, candy and maybe even a clam or crab shell to serve as a reminder of the upcoming Feast of Seven Fishes.
Referred to as La Vigilia Napoletana in southern Italy, this Christmas Eve feast respects the Church’s banning of meat on Christmas Eve. Depending on what’s in season, the feast may include cod, squid, crab, shrimp, clams, anchovies, lobster, baccala, calamari, oysters, mussels or white fish, and they can be steamed, baked or fried. A side dish of antipasto or Italian-stuffed artichokes may round out the meatless feast.
Afterward, Italian children must certainly anticipate a visit from Babbo Natale, or Father Christmas, but they learn early about the true significance of the holy season. With their families, they attend midnight Mass on Christmas Eve and may watch or attend the pope’s noon Christmas message and blessing, delivered to thousands of people who crowd St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican on Christmas Day.
The time for celebration, when families embrace each other with hugs and greetings of “Buon Natale,” culminates with one of the biggest feasts of the year. Unlike other countries, where very certain foods highlight the Christmas menu, Italy defies such regimentation. Many people naturally equate “Italian food” with spaghetti, mostaccioli and other types of pasta that Marco Polo is said to have introduced to the country; in reality, “Italian food” varies from one region to the next. And since many culinary experts break down Italy into 20 distinct culinary regions, it becomes easier to see why Christmas fare may differ widely from one region to another.
For example, in northern Italy, the food is generally heavier; in the south, it is spicier and sweeter. So in the northern portion of “the boot,” it’s common to find pasta served with a white cheese sauce while in Naples, pasta is most often served with a tomato-based sauce, called napoletana. In Genoa, people are partial to pesto sauce, a flavorful mixture of basil, pine nuts, garlic, olive oil and grated cheese. It may be topped with Parmesan, a grated cheese that originated near Parma, Italy.
Still, several commonalities transcend boundaries on Christmas Day: the Italians’ fondness for big meals, their sentimentality for certain national culinary traditions and their fondness for meat, especially if they ate only fish the night before. Particular Christmas Day favorites include capon, salumi calabresi -- a cold cut tray consisting of a variety of sweet and spicy meats and cheeses -- and bruschetta con pomodori, or bruschetta with sun-dried tomatoes.
For dessert, many Italians eagerly slice into panettone, a light and buttery fruitcake filled with candied fruits, raisins, ginger, honey, almonds and hazelnuts, a nougat concoction known as il torrone and, of course, gelato in an assortment of flavors. Fine Italian wine often competes on the dessert table with two other native favorites: espresso and cappuccino.
Italians raise a final toast to the Christmas season on January 6, the Day of the Epiphany, also known as Three Kings Day. Italian children often receive gifts on this day, too, from a witch-like character known as La Befana, or Epifania, as she later became known.
To outsiders, a witch may seem like an odd character amid the Italians’ unrelenting focus on Christian figures – unless they are familiar with the story: Legend has it that the three wise men asked La Befana to accompany them on their journey to visit the Christ child in Bethlehem, but she declined. By the time she changed her mind and set out to find them, it was too late; she couldn’t find the trio anywhere. To compensate for her absence, she now visits and leaves gifts for other children.
In some parts of Italy, children dress as La Befana and go door to door, where they receive small gifts. At the end of the day, figures of her are burned in a bonfire that represents a cleansing, of sorts – a desire to say goodbye to the previous year and greet the new one.
For Italians, this seems wholly appropriate. After all, the new year represents a new calendar of holidays and festivals that underscore the religious traditions that so define their daily lives.