Italian Christmas Traditions: How do Celebrate Christmas?
Christmas is celebrated in Italy with lots of great, unique Christmas traditions. These traditions vary from city to city, from when to open presents to which dishes should be served. Here are some popular Christmas traditions in Italy.
Christmas is one of the biggest Christian festivals celebrated throughout the world. The entire season boasts of music, singing and dancing. Streets, shops and even homes can be seen decorated with lights, candles and gifts. A season of religious observance, Christmas in Italy is celebrated over a period of three weeks. The entire atmosphere is filled up with anticipation, awaiting the joyous celebration. A special prayer service and church worship begin eight days prior to Christmas. This service is called Novena and it lasts for nine consecutive days. Read on to know more about Italian Christmas celebrations and traditions.
Italian Christmas traditions generally blend two spiritual traditions. One derives from the ancient Roman heritage of the region with a holiday called Saturnalia, which is traditionally celebrated on winter solstice. The second set of traditions comes from the Advent (Natale), which celebrates the birth of Jesus.
Christmas, as it is celebrated in Italy, has two origins – the familiar Christian traditions and the pagan traditions from the ancient Roman empire. In ancient times, ‘Saturnalia’ was celebrated between the 17th of December and the 24th of December, and was the pagan festival in honor of the Roman God, Saturn. During this ancient ritual, cattle were slaughtered so they would not have to be fed during the long winter. For most people, especially peasants, it was the only time of the year with an abundance of fresh meat available. With all the extra food and fermented ale, the timing was perfect for a celebration! In 4 A.D. the date for the birth of Jesus Christ was officially set as the 25th December by the church in Rome. Eventually, this day was recognized around the world as the official day of Christmas. Natale (Christmas), is literally understood as ‘birthday’, in Italian.
Christmas Celebrations In Italy
Christmas Day – Natale
This day centres around the very important and family-related Christmas lunch. This can often go on for hours, after which some families choose to hand out gifts. However, many families save this part of holiday tradition for January 6th.
Commonly celebrated in Sicily as well as in the Northeast, this day of festivities is one of many dedicated to the family’s youngest. St Lucia is said to bring gifts for good children and coal for those who have been bad, during the night between December 12th and 13th . Some children are also advised to leave out coffee for St Lucia and carrots for her donkey.
As per customs, a Christmas decoration staple in Italian homes is the Ceppo, which is a pyramid structure designed to hold shelves full of different Christmas items. The ceppo generally holds Christmas gifts on one shelf, while candies on the other. It is also possible to have a small nativity set with candles and pictures on one shelf. A star is placed on top of the ceppo, and ribbons, colored streamers, and glittering ornaments are hung around the frame.
Another female saint synonymous with Italian Christmas the mysterious and legendary La Befana. The legend describes her as a kind witch who was stopped by the three wise men looking for the way to Bethlehem. After refusing to come with them, she saw a great light in the skies and realised Christ had been born. Ever since, the legend says, she has been wandering trying to find the child she is looking for, leaving gifts for children along the way. For this very reason, Italian children wake up to find well-stuffed stockings by their beds on the morning of January 6th.
Italian Christmas Food
Of course just like any other Christmas celebration, festival in Italy cannot be complete without food or rather a feast. In Italy, many people fast for 24 hours just before the Christmas day. On Christmas day, the fast is broken by having a meal together with the family. Today, not everyone may fast, however, some people skip eating meat on Christmas day. This is the reason that fish is so popular for a traditional meal. The main course for food is fish, eel, lamb, or turkey. Accompanying the main course is usually antipasto, cheese and crackers, pasta with various sauces, shellfish, sausage, vegetables, and potatoes. As a part of Christmas recipes, desserts consist of pandoro which is a sweet yeast bread, candied fruit, gingerbread, panforte (similar to fruitcake), Panettone, and candied nuts. Honey was served during this time in ancient Rome, so that the new year would be ‘sweet’ for people.
In the middle of the merrymaking and religious fervor, long and slim candles, also called Christmas tapers, are lit and a banquet is spread. In Rome, the traditional dish on the eve of Christmas is a big female eel (Capitone), while in the Northern side of Rome, the traditional dishes may include pork (usually its legs stuffed with sausages), turkey with chestnut stuffing, etc.