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Christmas in Italy

Modern figures for Neapolitan Crib 18th century
Modern figures for Neapolitan Crib 18th century

Most of our Italian families who immigrated to the US brought some form of these traditional Italian festivities with them and celebrated them in this country. We grew up with these traditions, and many of us still celebrate them with our own families, thus passing down to future generations the great Italian spirit of Christmas joy.

CELEBRATED: Holiday, Christmas

This month’s essay is a bit different than the usual fare I provide. I would like to focus on the Christmas holiday season in Italy and some of the various celebrations during the months of December and early January. This is by no means a comprehensive list of traditional celebrations, but, hopefully, it will bring up some fond memories of celebrations in our youth. Most of our Italian families who immigrated to the US brought some form of these traditional Italian festivities with them and celebrated them in this country. We grew up with these traditions, and many of us still celebrate them with our own families, thus passing down to future generations the great Italian spirit of Christmas joy.

The Christmas season (Natale) in Italy is celebrated for much longer than in many other countries. The festive season officially starts on December 8, with the celebration of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, the traditional day on which the Christmas tree is raised. It lasts through January 6, the 12th day of Christmas, the Epiphany (Epifania). Gift-giving traditionally occurs on this day since the feast celebrates the Magi bringing their gifts to the newborn babe. The Italian name, Natale, comes from the Latin natalis (birth day) and the holiday greetings in Italian are Buon Natale (Merry Christmas) and Felice Natale (Happy Christmas).

Nativity Crib Scene
The first Nativity crib scene is thought to go back to 1025 in Naples, in the Church of Santa Maria del Presepe (Saint Mary of the Crib). Naples has become world-famous for its Nativity scenes, which are known as Presepe Napoletano (Neapolitan Crib). However, it was St. Francis of Assisi who popularized the tradition of the Nativity crib scene. In 1222, he visited Bethlehem and saw the place where traditionally it was believed Jesus was born. The following year he set up a living crib scene in Assisi in order to help tell the Christmas story of the birth of Jesus to the townspeople. The tradition caught on and over the years spread to other cities in Italy as well.

Originally, the Nativity crib scenes were only set up in public squares, in churches, and in monasteries. However, having them in a private home became popular in the 16th century and made the custom even more widespread. The Nativity crib scenes are traditionally set up on December 8th, however, the figure of the baby Jesus is not put into the crib/manger until the night of December 24th to signify the babe’s birth.

Sometimes the Nativity crib scene is displayed in the shape of a pyramid which can be several feet tall. It is composed of tiers of shelves and is decorated with colored paper, gold covered pinecones, small candles, and other artifacts. The shelves above the manger scene, which is usually on one of the lower shelves, might also contain fruit, candy and presents. A small star is often hung inside the top of the pyramid.

One unique thing about Neapolitan Nativity crib scenes is that they always have extra ‘everyday’ people and objects (such as houses, waterfalls, food, animals and even figures of famous people and politicians) in them. Naples is also the home to the largest Nativity crib scene in the world, which has over 600 objects in it.

The Yule Log
The tradition of the Yule log has been celebrated in Italy since the 11th century. The “Yule log” has different names depending on the region of Italy: in Tuscany, for example, it is known as ciocco, while in Lombardy it is known as zocco. In the Val di Chiana area of Tuscany, it was customary for children, after they were blindfolded, to hit the log with pincers, while the rest of the family sang the Ave Maria del Ceppo (Hail Mary of the Log). That this tradition was once deeply rooted in various parts of Italy is demonstrated by the fact that Christmas in Tuscany was often popularly referred to as Festa del Ceppo (Feast of the Log).

The Christmas Tree
Although the tradition of the Christmas tree is of Germanic origin, it was also widely adopted in Italy during the 20th century. The first Christmas tree in Italy was probably erected at the Quirinal Palace in Rome at the request of Queen Margherita, towards the end of the 19th century. During the Fascist period, the custom of the Christmas tree was frowned upon and even opposed since it was considered an imitation of a foreign, non-Italian tradition. During this time, the typical Italian Nativity crib scene was much more preferred and encouraged. Every year on Christmas, the small medieval town of Gubbio (in the region of Perugia) lights up the world’s largest Christmas tree on the slopes of Mount Ingino that lies outside the town. The ‘tree’ is not really a tree at all. It is rather an installation of over 700 lights shaped like a Christmas tree that spreads 2,133 feet (650 meters) across the mountain slope.

Shepherd Pipes and Bagpipes in the Squares
In many towns and cities, children wearing shepherd sandals and hats go out on nights around Christmas singing carols and playing songs on shepherd pipes. Also, men play bagpipes in the squares of various towns and cities, especially in Rome. These latter are known as zampognari (bagpipers), and they dress as shepherds because, historically, it was the shepherds who made the journey from their mountain homes into the squares to earn some extra money by playing the bagpipes for anyone who would listen. The zampognari wear a costume of short breeches with leather leggings, a sheepskin vest with a woolen cloak, and a peaked cap. This tradition of dressing like shepherds and playing pipes or bagpipes was based on the story of the shepherds who visited Jesus on the night of His birth and played their instruments for him.

The Bearers of Gifts
Christmas in Italy is no different than other parts of the world when it comes to giving and receiving gifts. (The major gift-giving day in Italy is January 6th, the Feast of the Epiphany). Depending on local custom, the typical gift bearers for Italian children are Santa Lucia (December 13), Gesù Bambino (Baby Jesus), Babbo Natale (Father Christmas or Santa Claus), and, on Epiphany, the Befana.

Santa Lucia is the traditional bearer of gifts in some areas of Northern Italy, such as Verona, Lodi, Cremona, Pavia, Brescia, Bergamo and Piacenza on the night between December 12 and 13. According to the Italian tradition, she shows up on her donkey and the children must leave a cup of tea for her and a plate of flour for her donkey.

Gesù Bambino and Babbo Natale come on the evening between December 24 and 25. They bring some gifts to children, much as they traditionally do in other parts of the world. Children leave special treats for them to nourish them on their rounds.

Befana is a typical figure of Italian Christmas folklore, depicted as an old witch on a broom, who appears as a bearer of gifts on January 6, the day of the Epiphany. (The name Befana is a corruption of the word Epifania, i.e. Epiphany). The legend says that on this date she fills stockings with candy for the children on the good list, and coal for the naughty children.

But she doesn’t stop there. According to the legend, since she was by nature a good housekeeper, she would also sweep the house floor. The legend holds that this was not just to clean the house, but also to sweep away the problems of the previous year and leave the family with a fresh slate to go into the year ahead. Her housework, according to the tale, stopped her from venturing out with the three kings on the night they went off in search of baby Jesus. She went off herself later on, with a bag full of gifts for the newborn king.

(For a more detailed presentation about the Befana, see my earlier Il Professore post here).

Christmas Foods
What would an Italian Christmas celebration be like without food?!! A pretty miserable affair, to say the very least!! Certainly, food takes center stage in the Christmas celebrations, which last for over a month in Italy.

The Christmas Eve Dinner has traditionally been a meatless meal, going back to the Church’s abstinence rule that no meat be eaten on Christmas Eve. Although this stricture has been lifted and meat is now allowed, many Italians still follow the rule because the fish dishes traditionally served on that day are so appetizing. Italians loved this tradition so much that it became extremely popular among the immigrant families in the United States and was passed on to their descendants.

Festa dei Sette Pesci (The Feast of the Seven Fishes): This is the name given to the remarkable Christmas Eve celebration in Italian-American communities. The same celebration goes by several different names in Italy: La Vigilia di Natale (Vigil of the Nativity), Cenone (great supper), Cena della Vigilia di Natale (the supper of the Vigil of the Nativity) or simply La Vigilia (The Vigil).

Whatever it is called, it is a special grand seafood meal unlike any other during the year. The tradition comes from Southern Italy, and commemorates the wait, the Vigilia di Natale, for the midnight birth of the baby Jesus. It was introduced into the United States by Southern Italian immigrants in New York City’s Little Italy neighborhood in the late 1800s and spread from there across the country.

This meal is intensely regional, both in the US and in Italy. What you find on the plate in one city may not be the same as in another. Typical “fishes” may include acciughe (anchovies), merlano (whiting), aragosta (lobster), sperlani (smelts), baccalà (salt cod), frutti di mare (shellfish), anguille (eels), calamari (squid), polpo (octopus), gamberetto (shrimp), cozze (mussels), and vongole (clams). Fried vegetables are also a popular accompaniment to the fish; these often include, but are not limited to, fried artichokes, pickled vegetables, fried squash blossoms and other treats. And, of course, such a grand feast includes pasta as well. Some cities tend to favor special dishes, for example, in Naples—frittelle di baccalà (cod fritters); in Rome—La pasta e broccoli in brodo di arzilla (pasta, broccoli & arzilla fish soup); in Calabria—spaghetti con la mollica e le alici (spaghetti with anchovies & breadcrumbs). Traditionally, the Feast was served after attending midnight Mass, but it is now often served at any time during the evening.

Christmas Day Dinner: On Christmas Day Italian families gather for a huge meal, the most important get-together of the holidays. The dinner often starts with antipasti, such as seafood salad, tuna, shrimp with cocktail sauce, pasta with a walnut cream sauce, and a variety of cured meats. This is followed by the pasta course. The type of pasta served depends on the region of Italy and the family’s favorite. Tortellini in broth is a favorite for this course; other popular options include lasagna and pasticcio. This is followed by the meat (this dinner is very meat-friendly!) —roast beef, stuffed capon, boar, chicken, and/or other meats.

Sweet treats: Italians enjoy special sweets at Christmastime as part of their celebrations.

Panettone is a typical Italian Christmas cake made with raisins and candied fruit. It originated in Milan probably sometime in the 12th century, and eventually became popular throughout Italy. The name “panettone” could derive from pan del Ton (Toni’s bread), referring to one of the legends about the origins of this dessert. Allegedly, it was created by a scullery boy named Toni. It was Christmas and the court chef had no dessert to offer. What he had prepared wasn’t good enough to be served, so Toni prepared a rich bread using everything he had available (flour, yeast, butter, eggs, dried raisins, and candied peel). Several centuries later, Ludovico Sforza, “il Moro,” the Duke of Milan, encouraged the launch of the new cake-like bread, calling it “pan del Ton.”

Pandorois another sweet Italian Christmas cake enjoyed throughout Italy. The name of this cake derives from pan de oro (bread of gold) in memory of a conical-shaped cake, which at the time of the Serenissima Republic (Republic of Venice) was covered with pure gold leaves. The first mention of a dessert clearly identified as pandoro dates to the 18th century. It was popular in the cuisine of the Venetian aristocracy. Venice was the principal market for spices as late as the 18th century, as well as for the sugar that by then had replaced honey in European pastries and breads made from leavened dough. And it was in Verona, in Venetian territory, that the formula for making pandoro was developed and perfected, a process that required a century. (The modern history of pandoro began in Verona on October 30, 1894, when Domenico Melegatti obtained a patent for a procedure he used in making it).

Torrone was originally from Northern Italy, but today is widespread throughout the entire country. According to tradition, the candy originated from a dessert cake served in Cremona on October 25, 1441 at the wedding between Francesco Sforza and Bianca Maria Visconti. It thus became famous as a treat from Cremona. Initially, it was a compact preparation made with almonds, honey, and egg whites, in the shape of Cremona’s bell tower, at the time called Torrione (today, Torrazzo), which explains the etymology of the name. Over the centuries other ingredients were often added, such as chocolate, coffee, and other types of nuts to satisfy the sweet preferences of Italians.

Nougat is very similar to Torrone. It was a favorite of Northern Italy and came originally from Cologna Veneta, in the Province of Verona. Its origins probably date back to the commercial relations that the Republic of Venice had with the East. It is made with sugar or honey, roasted nuts, whipped egg whites, and sometimes chopped candied fruit. Its consistency is chewy, and it is also used in a variety of other sweet delicacies.

Struffoli, also known as “Honey Balls,” originated in Naples and is now popular throughout Italy at Christmas time. The sweet dough, made from baking powder, eggs, flour, honey, salt, and sugar, is used in many Italian sweet treats, such as chiacchiere, where it is deep fried and covered with powdered sugar. For the dessert, struffoli, the sweet dough is formed into balls about the size of marbles and then deep fried. Struffoli was already known in the 17th century; the name probably derives from the Greek strongoulos (round).

(You can read more about Christmas Fare in our Vino e Cibo post by Ron Fenolio here.)

Looking at the Italian celebrations of Christmas provides a unique opportunity to view the traditions of the past from a new perspective, one that brings them alive for us today. In doing this, we are able to recall that many of our own family celebrations at this time of year came from our forebears in Italy before they immigrated to the US. It helps us make a loving connection with these “old timers” and to be thankful to them for the many sacrifices they made so that we can enjoy what we have in our own lives today.

To all of you, I wish Buon Natale!!!

Adapted by James J. Boitano, PhD from:
Cooper, James. “Christmas in Italy.” WhyChristmas, website, 2021;
Curtin, Ellen. “8 Christmas Traditions in Italy.” CityWonders website, December 5, 2019;
Jones, Adam. “Feast of the Seven Fishes: An Italian Christmas Eve Tradition.” Italiarail website, December 20, 2019; website; website; website.

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