What makes an Italian Christmas?

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What makes an Italian Christmas?
Ortisei in northern Italy at Christmas. Photo: Mike Slone/Flickr

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 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, with family and good food.

The Feast of the Seven Fishes, or cenone (literally ‘big dinner’) as it is called, is the main meal of the festive season. Unlike in the UK and the US, it's eaten on Christmas Eve and celebrates the wait for Jesus to be born.

Traditionally, Catholics abstain from eating meat in the 24 hours leading up to Christmas day, which is why fish usually take centre stage.

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

Once dinner is over, many Italians head off to midnight mass - whether or not they're regular churchgoers the rest of the year.

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.”

When December 25th arrives, food and family remain at the heart of the festivities - but the menu is very different from the foods you might be used to. 

The main course will typically include crostini with liver pâté or tortellini in chicken stock, along with luxury foods such as oysters.

And the offering varies across the country; in the north, for example, many families tuck into local specialties 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 at the main course, and the accompanying vegetables vary from family to family.

Another popular Italian tradition is il presepe (the crib). Many 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.

You'll see the nativity scenes in most towns, cities and villages across the country, but they're particularly popular in Naples and the rest of the Campania region.

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.

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As we all know, Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without any presents, and while the Italian celebrations are somewhat less commercialized than those in the US, for example, gift-giving is still a crucial part of the holiday.

Italian 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, but while she is a mystical figure, there's nothing scary about her. 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, Befana regretted her decision and decided to follow the Wise Men, but she could not find them or the stable with baby Jesus.

According to the legend, she's still out there searching for him, but until she does, she carries on handing out gifts to any good children she comes across. 

Photo:  ho visto nina volare/Flickr

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

Indeed, the abundance of traditions doesn’t mean an Italian Christmas is totally 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. A version of this article was first published on December 22nd, 2015.



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