Italian Christmas Traditions
Just as Italian food is regional, Christmas or Holiday traditions vary from province to province in Italy. Sometimes cities and towns just a few miles apart will celebrate very different traditions. Much has to do with the ruling empires over the centuries while others are closely tied to a specific event. The cities will light with festive decorations and red carpets adorn shopping areas. A symbol of Christmas that is very prevalent in the US but notably missing in Italy is the Christmas tree even though over the past twenty years it has been appearing more and more on the Christmas scene.
Things that are uniform across Italy are the Nativity Scene, Midnight Mass, and the Befana, an old witch tied to the Epiphany, celebrated on the sixth of January. It is thought that the Befana represents the end of festivities of the year gone by. In fact, children of all ages know, “L‘Epifania, tutte le feste porta via!” or the Befana takes away all of the holidays.
The true protagonists for the Christmas period are food and family. It is a time where families get together more often and cook traditional foods that would be a bit too time consuming during other periods. I think most Americans would be disappointed celebrating Christmas in Italy. Most of the Italian holiday advertising, a primary driver in the US of Christmas spirit, is about Panettone and Pandoro. It is more likely to find a Nativity Scene than a Christmas Tree in an Italian home. Most parts of Italy do not give gifts on Christmas’ Eve and where they do it is Gesu’ Bambino, the baby Jesus, who brings the gifts.
Gifts exchanges are spread out over Santa Lucia and the Ephifany and the folklore of Santa Claus is just not there. Letters are written to Santa Lucia or Gesu’ Bambino and the kids are good to avoid problems with the Befana! This is not to say that Christmas has not experienced an increased commercialization, on the contrary, the holidays were very personal and family oriented when I first arrived in Italy, today advertisers are pushing much harder the snow, the winter scenes, the north star and the other images of Christmas.
Milan also celebrates it patron Saint, Sant’Ambrogio, in this period and together with the national holiday of the Immacolata a long weekend is usually the result. Milan also holds one of the most unique public markets during these two days, the Fiera dei Obei Obei. The Fiera dei Obei Obei is kind of a Flea Market. It will bring over a hundred thousand visitors a day.
To sum it up, a visit to Italy during the holidays can truly be a unique and eye opening experience but this is one time where it must be with Italians, perhaps relatives whom you have not seen in awhile but assuredly with family. Do not miss the Midnight Mass even if you are not Catholic and always keep a Panettone or Pandoro with a bottle of chilled Prosecco close at hand.
Tags: Italian Christmas Traditions Santa Lucia Ephifany Christmas Foods Obei Obei Nativity Scenes Art and Culture Christmas Travel Italy