What makes an Italian Christmas?

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Ortisei in northern Italy at Christmas. Photo: Mike Slone/Flickr
08:53 CET+01:00
With Christmas just around the corner, The Local spoke to some Italians to find out what Christmas is really about for them.

An Italian Christmas in 2015 is a mixture of centuries-old regional traditions and more modern touches, often with a slight American influence. But at the heart of the holiday for most Italians is the idea of celebrating the birth of Jesus, and doing so with family.

The Feast of the Seven Fishes, or cenone (literally ‘big dinner’) as it is known, is a meal shared on Christmas Eve and celebrates the wait for the birth of Jesus. Traditionally, Catholics abstain from eating meat in the 24 hours leading up to Christmas day, hence the reference to fish.

“The most important thing is eating dinner all together as a family,” 22-year-old student Federica Bilecci told us.

After the meal, many Italians head off to midnight mass. Marco Bonnano, also a student, said: “Mass is the most important part of Christmas for my family. Even though over the years we’ve adopted American customs such as Father Christmas, that’s the one thing that will never change, I think.”

For their main meal on Christmas Day, Italians shun the turkey which takes pride of place on many British or American dining tables, and instead rustle up more unusual delicacies.

The main course will typically include crostini with liver pâté or tortellini in chicken stock, while northern Italians are likely to indulge in local dishes including lo zampone, a pig's foot filled with spiced mince meat, or il cotechino, a sausage made from pig's intestines.

But the menu is far from set in stone, with many families opting for lamb or fish, and accompanying vegetables including mashed potato, cabbage or lentils.

One tradition which is particularly popular in Naples is il presepio (the crib). Many Neapolitan homes, churches and public buildings display a wooden frame containing hand-carved figures of Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus in the stable.

Photo: nedrichards/Flickr

Shelves support the frame to make a pyramid several feet high, and the whole thing is decorated with coloured paper, pine cones and candles, with a star or doll at the top. The shelves above the manger scene have small gifts of fruit, sweets and presents. 

However, some Italians have also adopted northern European traditions and especially in the north of Italy, many families decorate an evergreen tree in their home. 

“We tend to do the tree on December 8th, the day of the Immaculate Conception, which is when the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she was pregnant,” Federica said.

In Italy, children hang up their Christmas stocking on the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6th. And instead of Father Christmas, they are expecting Befana to fill it with treats.

La Befana is a witch-like character who rides a broomstick – however, she is a kind old lady. According to legend, the Three Wise Men, (I re magi), stopped at Befana's hut to ask for directions on their way to Bethlehem. When they asked her to join them in their journey, she said she was unable to because she was too busy.

Later that night when she saw the bright star, Befana regretted her decision and set out to find the Wise Men, but she could not find them or the stable. The story goes that she is still out there searching for the holy baby, and since she has not yet found him, she gives her gifts to good children – while naughty ones get nothing but pieces of charcoal.

Photo:  ho visto nina volare/Flickr

“Most children now believe in both Befana and Father Christmas”, Marco said.

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Indeed, the abundance of traditions doesn’t mean an Italian Christmas is free from commercialization. Bilecci spoke to The Local about gift-giving in Italy. “When it comes to how much we spend on Christmas presents, it depends on the person,” she said. "But for us Christmas is like a birthday and we like to give good, expensive presents.”

But despite some newer customs creeping in from across the pond, Christmas in Italy has still kept its roots. When we asked Marco what was at the core of an Italian Christmas, he said: “Family. If we weren’t all together, it wouldn’t feel like Christmas, no matter how many decorations and presents we had.”

By Ellie Bennett

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