History of Christmas in Italy

Buon Natale! (Good Christmas)

The Christmas season in Italy begins during the Novena (the eight days preceding Christmas) and lasts until the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6th). During the Novena Italian children go from house to house, reciting Christmas passages. In return for their performance they are gifted with coins, to buy themselves some candy. In rural areas of Italy, musicians dressed as shepherds, going about playing bagpipes.

The Italian Christmas is centered around the presepio, or nativity scene. The first presepio was introduced in Italy by Saint Francis of Assisi. Similar to the role of the Christmas tree, every Italian household has their own unique presipio, some of which have been handed down through many generations. Throughout Italian towns and cities large and small presepios are displayed. Great cathedrals will often feature life size figures of people and animals.

A presepio may be placed on a ceppo, a Christmas pyramid with three or four shelves, brought out specifically for the holidays. Along with the family presepio, other decorations may include the Italian flag, pine cones, puppets, and figures of angels. Small gifts may be placed on the bottom shelf. The main day for gift giving, however, is not Christmas Eve or Day, but rather the Epiphany, when Italian children eagerly await the arrival of La Befana (her name is a variation of Ephania).


La Befana

According to Italian legend, La Befana was a witch living at the time of the birth of Jesus. The three wise men (also known as the three kings) were on their way to Bethlehem, when they invited La Befana to come along. She was busy with her housework and declined. Later, once she had finished her cleaning, she set off on her broomstick with toys for the Gesú Bambino (Baby Jesus). However, she could not find the Three Kings and soon lost her way. Italian children believe that La Befana is still looking for Baby Jesus, and on the eve of the Epiphany, she flies down the chimney of each house, and leaves gifts in the children’s shoes, which are left by the fireplace, just in case Baby Jesus is there.

Italian Christmas Eve

Catholic Italians follow a strict fast 24 hours leading up to Christmas Eve. The Christmas Eve feast might feature baked eel, a variety of pasta, chicken stuffed with chestnut dressing, and a Christmas cake called a panettone.

Following dinner, parents will read aloud letters written by their children. In the letters, children wish their parents a good Christmas and promise to be well behaved in the coming year. Once the letters have been read, the father burns them in the fireplace. Candles are light around the presepio and at about nine o’clock, everyone goes to church for the traditional Christmas Eve Mass.

At noon on Christmas day, crowds of people gather in Vatican Square, in Rome, for a blessing from the Pope. Children may receive gifts on Christmas Day, from either Gesú Bambino or Babbo Natale (Father Christmas),

Originally published at Suite101 History of Christmas in Italy
All images used are from the Public Domain

All Rights Reserved (c) Lorri Brown 2015

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