Christmas time is special almost everywhere, and every country has differing ways of celebrating the festival. The Italians, with their love of family, faith and food, are no different. So, if you’re invited to Italy for Christmas, how should you expect to celebrate it. What are the Italian Christmas traditions?
Italian Christmas Traditions
The Christmas season, marked before Christmas by a series of church services known as the Novenas, runs from 17 December until Epiphany on 6 January. While the Brits are taking down their tree, some Italian children are opening their presents, although these days many families also open gifts on Christmas Day as well as, or even instead of, Epiphany. Most Italian homes will have a Nativity crib scene as part of the Christmas decorations, which is put out early in December. However, the figure of the baby Jesus doesn’t arrive until Christmas Eve. Some of the scenes can be very ornate, enclosed in a triangular shape, with shelves for small gifts and a star hung from the point of the roof. A Yule Log is often burnt in open fireplaces during the Christmas season.
Italian Christmas Witch
Many Italian Christmas traditions have Befana, a old lady or witch, delivering the presents. Jolly red-clad Santa Claus and Rudolf the reindeer are newcomers here. Instead, Befana rides on a broomstick to deliver the gifts on Epiphany. She is perhaps closer to the Halloween witches depicted in English folklore, but in contrast to them, she is a good witch; a kind old crone. She makes the children wait until they have seen out the Christmas season before rewarding them. Like Santa Claus, Befana fills stockings hung by the fireplace, but Santa is sometimes relegated to a bit part in Italy, and might possibly bring small gifts for Christmas Day to alleviate the wait for Befana’s visit. According to the tale, Befana got lost when following the Magi (the Three Wise Men) and that is why she is late. Similar to the British tradition, good children receive sweets in their stocking, and bad children receive a lump of ‘coal’, or black sugar. These days most Italians follow the idea of Santa Claus too, and also give gifts on Christmas Day.
Italian Christmas Food
For many people it is the food that makes Christmas, and the Italians, famed for their cuisine, are no different. Panettone is the most well known Italian Christmas food, a light candy and raisin filled cake which is traditionally served with sweet hot drinks or sweet wine. Some areas of Italy add a helping of crema di mascarpone to the serving, using a mix of mascarpone cheese, eggs and Amaretto to enrich the creamy taste. Panettone is much lighter than Christmas cake and in some areas outside Italy, is preferred by those who find fruit cake too stodgy.
On Christmas Eve, many families eat no meat, and some choose to cut out dairy food too. Generally, supper is a light seafood meal before Mass. After Midnight Mass, Panettone is often served with a hot drink to warm people up. Christmas Day dinner is the most important meal of the festive season, and as with many other nationalities, can be quite a long meal, slowly digested and enjoyed. There is no signature Italian Christmas dish, however, as each region has its own specialities. Tortellini e brodo is a favourite, while regional delicacies range from crostini with liver pate to lo zampone (pig’s trotter with mince), il cotechino (a sausage of pig’s intestines with mince) or a piece of lamb. Dessert can be panettone, the similar pandoro, nougat or the gingerbread-like panforte. Many Italian desserts include nuts, because folklore holds that nuts help fertility, both of humans and the earth, so those who eat many nuts will have large families and good farming land.
Italian Christmas Songs
Christmas is a time of song in many places. In Italy, the children go from door to door singing carols and reciting poetry, often while dressed as shepherds and playing pipes. It is widely thought that the carol singing tradition originated in Italy, and the children dressed as shepherds still re-enact that idea, while in Rome, shepherds, or people dressed as shepherds, serenade customers at the Christmas market. A pipe playing shepherd also often features in the traditional Nativity scenes. Silent Night, the well known carol, has an Italian version called Astro Ciel (Star of the Sky) sung to the same familiar tune.
The Italians spend more time in church around Christmas than many nationalities, their strong Catholic faith marking the days before Christmas with a metronomic regularity. As in many countries, singing is also an important part of the Italian Christmas celebrations, whether that is in church, in the market square or on the doorstep. Age-old Italian Christmas traditions still endure in many places, although the modern day version of Christmas as a time of giving gifts delivered by a cheery guy with a white beard is slowly supplanting the shepherds and Befana, the Christmas Witch. Sometimes globalisation has a lot to answer for.