The Italians love the Christmas season so much they celebrate it for a whole month! Their traditions include many which can be traced to the ancient Romans. Some of these are celebrated throughout Italy and others are specific to a particular region.
The focal point of decoration is the Nativity scene, Presepio. Italians take great pride in the creation of the manger, which was actually a sort of clever publicity stunt thought up in 1223 by St. Francis of Assisi, who wanted to involve the peasants in celebrating the life of Jesus.
Bagpipes are the most common Italian Christmas sound. The zampognari, the shepherds who play the bagpipes, come down from their mountain homes at Christmas time and perform in the market squares. The playing of bagpipes is popular in the regions of Calabria and Abruzzo and in the piazzas of Rome.
One of my very favorites is the tradition of the children writing letters to tell their parents how much they love them. The letter(s) are normally placed under the father’s plate and read when dinner is finished on Christmas Eve.
The Tree of Light is a wooden frame in the shape of a pyramid with several tiers of shelves decorated with a Nativity Scene, colored paper, gilt pine cones and miniature colored pennants with candles attached to the sides and a star or small doll at the apex.
The Urn of Fate is filled with small gifts and the family takes turns drawing out a gift until all gifts are gone.
On the Feast of Epiphany (Jan 6) La Befana (a kindly witch) brings toys to the children and sometimes a piece of coal that is actually, nowadays, carbon dolce (rock candy that looks amazingly like coal).
The New Year, Capodanno, involves a variety of customs primarily having to do with throwing out the old and preparing for the new.
On the last day of the year a Yule Log is kept burning to keep evil spirits at bay because these nasty spirits don’t like fire. Likewise, the elaborate fireworks displays on New Year’s Eve keeps those same spirits away because they don’t like loud noise either.
In southern Italy, especially in Naples, old pots, pans, clothing and even appliances and furniture are thrown out the windows to represent “letting go” of the past and preparing for the future. Old crockery is also thrown out at midnight lancio dei cocci, specifically from the sitting room window and even inside. Be sure to look up when walking through Naples at this time of year.
Wearing new, red undergarments on New Year’s Eve brings good luck. These items must be given as a gift and thrown away after January 1st in order for the power against evil spirits to be effective. For centuries red has been used to exorcise war and catastrophes.
Le Strenne are simple gifts that are given at New Years. This tradition can be traced back to the ancient Romans giving gifts to each other to increase well being and good luck for the New Year.
Kissing under the mistletoe on New Year’s Eve is a tradition traced to ancient times when this plant was thought to be magical with the ability to induce fertility and love.
Eating grapes at midnight on New Year’s Eve is a relatively newer tradition traced to the Iberian Peninsula and introduced in Italy by the Spaniards. At midnight people offer each other twelve grapes, each symbolizes a golden coin for each of the twelve months of the year and represents abundance, fertility, plenty and good luck.
The game of Tombola (similar to lotto) is traditionally played on New Year’s Eve. This game was introduced to take the place of gambling in the 18th century. Although legal in Naples (it was a source of revenue for the Kingdom of Naples), gambling was not tolerated by the church for moral reasons.
Doors and windows are kept open on New Year’s Day to let in good spirits and to create a draft to blow the evil spirits away.
Food, of course, is an important component in the Italian Holiday Season. Pesce (fish) is served for cena (dinner) on Christmas Eve. On December 25th pranzo (lunch) is the important meal and traditional foods are served depending on the region. For La Sera di Capodanno (New Year’s Eve), there is a cenone or grande cena (elaborate dinner). Throughout Italy, Lentichie (lentils) are served and represent money and good luck. Figs and figs in honey are eaten in Naples to ensure a sweet new year and a bay branch for good fortune, both traditions still practiced as in ancient Roman times.
The Italian Holiday Calendar
December 8 the celebration of L’Immacolata Concezione (the Immaculate Conception)
December 13 La Festa di Santa Lucia
December 24 La Vigilia di Natale (Christmas Eve)
December 25 Natale (Christmas)
December 26 La Festa di Santo (marks the announcement of the birth of Jesus and the arrival of the Wise Men (Mostrarmi)
December 31 La Festa di San Silvestro or La vigilia di Capodanno (New Year’s Eve)
January 1 Il Capodanno (New Year’s Day)
January 6 La Festa dell Epifania (The Epiphany).
I hope you have enjoyed this glimpse into the Holidays as celebrated in my favorite European country—Italy!
Buon Natale e Buon Anno!
Travel in Italia