Il Dolce Natale: Christmas time in Italy

Jessica Turpin
December 15, 2005

In modern day Italy, the celebration of Natale (Christmas) has it’s own unique flavour, combining pastoral traditions, traditional cultural rites, influences from Northern Europe, and a strong spiritual context to mark the important event.


Although Italians have adopted some of the northern European traditions, the season is less commercial than in America or the United Kingdom. A few families, especially in the north, now decorate a Christmas tree in their homes, however the focal point of decoration remains the presepio or Nativity scene which represents in miniature the Holy family in the stable. These are often handmade and as elaborate as the families can afford to make them. This model of a manger is an important part of the Italian Christmas celebration, as the manger scene originated in Italy. It is normally displayed on a triangular wooden frame, supporting several tiers of thin shelves, which is entirely decorated with coloured paper, pine cones, and lights or small candles. The presepio is placed at the base of this pyramid called a Ceppo (tree of light) and the shelves above it hold small gifts of fruit, sweets and presents. Another old Italian Christmas tradition is the urn of fate, a large ornamental bowl filled with wrapped presents, from which everyone takes it in turns to pick until all the presents are distributed.


Although the figure of Babbo Natale (Father Christmas) with his red suit and big white beard is becoming more widespread, the children of Italy hang up their stockings on the Feast of Epiphany on January 6th. Instead of Father Christmas the children anxiously await a visit from La Befana. She is a witch-like character who rides around on a broom. According to Italian legend, the three wise men stopped at her house to ask directions on their way to Bethlehem and they invited her to join them but she refused as she was busy cleaning her house. She promised that she would catch them up when she was finished, but by the time she had finished the cleaning they were long gone. She frantically began running after them with presents for baby Jesus, still carrying her broom. Magically she began to fly on her broom but could still not find the wise men or baby Jesus. Since then, on January 6th, the feast of Epiphany, she flies on her broom leaving gifts for other children; she brings presents for the good and pieces of coal for the bad.


The most common Italian Christmas sound is the bagpipes. A particular atmosphere is created by the Zampognari , the shepherds who play the bagpipes. During the nine days that precede this holiday, the shepherds from nearby mountain areas stroll around the streets filling them with carols. They always go in pairs; one plays the zampogna (goatskin bagpipe) and the other the ciaramella (a wooden flute). The melodies are adapted from old hill tunes. Modern Zampo-ognari wear traditional outfits of sheepskin vests, leather breeches and a woollen cloak. Legend says that the shepherds entertained the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem. Today, the Zampognari stop before every shrine to the Madonna and every nativity scene.


Italian traditions are heavily based on the religion of Christianity and celebrations begin in early December and continue throughout the month. A strict fast is observed 24 hours before Christmas after which a meal with many dishes (but no meat) is served. Eight days before Christmas a special Novena of prayers and church services begin. For those attending Midnight Mass on Christmas eve in churches throughout the country, there is normally a presepio, enthusiastic singing, lots of ceremonial splendour and candlelight.


With such a rich mixture of traditions Italy offers something for everyone. So whether you make a Christmas tree or presepio, wait for Father Christmas or La Befanaas we say in Italia

Buon Natale!

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