In Italy, Christmas is very important because the country is considered the heart of Christianity. There you can find the Vaticano, the Pope Francesco, and a lot of religious people. Christmas in Italy is not only a commercial festivity (although there always exists the risk to become one), but it's a spiritual way for people to connect with God and Jesus.
There are a few Christmas traditions that people who are interested in Italian culture should know. First of all, we name the period from the first day of December to the 24th l’Avvento, or Advent. This is a magical period where everyone is excited and you can feel an atmosphere of Christmas in the air; we call it la magia del Natale. During this magical time, people buy presents for relatives and friends, and every Sunday stores stay open to give people more opportunities to buy gifts. Most of the presents in the last couple of years have changed. Originally Italians preferred to buy items in stores, but now crafts are more important. People want their friends to receive something made with love, and this thoughtful gesture is very special.
During l’Avvento, generally the 1st or the 8th of December, we decorate our houses to create a Christmas mood. Usually we love to put lights on the windows and decorate a Christmas tree inside. Together as a reunited family, we make a albero di Natale (a Christmas tree) and decorate it with a lot of palline di Natale, canditi, ghirlande e festoni, or Christmas decorations.
After we finish decorating the tree, we put a big star on it which represents the stella cometa (the Star of Bethlehem) that helped I Re Magi (The Three Wise Men) journeying to Gesù (Jesus) during ancient times. In our tradition concerning I Re Magi, the day they arrived and saw Gesù is called Epifania (Epiphany). It takes place on the 6th of January. The night going from the 5th to the 6th of January they took three presents to Gesù suitable for a king: oro, incenso e mirra--gold, incense and myrrh.
Another tradition linked to Epifania is the arrival of la Befana, an old woman who lives in cold places. She arrives flying on a broom like a witch and only wears tatters because she is poor. Despite her poverty, she takes sweets and spreads love to all the good children of the world. Therefore, if you are a child, you should be good or la Befana will only give you coal.
Along with la Befana there is another important figure during Italian Christmas: Babbo Natale--Santa Claus. He is an old, plump man living in the North Pole or Finland (no one knows his exact whereabouts). Every child must write him a letter requesting the presents he or she wants from Babbo Natale. If he or she has been good throughout the entire year, Babbo Natale will give gifts. These presents are taken by Babbo Natale during the night from the 24th to the 25th of December; this is a cold night in which he drives la slitta--the sleigh, flying across the world thanks to le renne di Babbo Natale--Santa's reindeer.
Babbo Natale enters each house silently and children wake up in the morning to find their gifts. We also used to leave Babbo a little meal; his favourite is latte e biscotti--milk and biscuits. If you are a good boy or girl, in the morning you will also find a little letter from Babbo Natale in which he thanks you for your letter, your love and your hospitality. The only way to receive Babbo's visit is to be good and to believe in him.
The night that Santa arrives, all children go to bed rather late because the Italian tradition is to attend La Messa di Mezzanotte (Midnight Mass). This is a special moment in which people feel Jesus coming into the world and into their hearts. This Mass starts at midnight and lasts one hour; the priest tells the history of l’annunciazione, or the announcement. In this story, l’angelo Gabriele, the angel Gabriel, comes to see Maria Vergine, la Madonna, the Virgin Mary, to tell her about her son.
This is one of the most beautiful masses you can attend because you feel an atmosphere of love. Also, on the altar of the church there is a little reproduction of il bambin Gesù, the baby Jesus.
Another important tradition in Italy is Il Presepe, the nativity scene. Especially in Naples, there are many craftsmen specialized in the construction of Presepi; throughout all of Italy, there are events at which you can see various different kinds. We have I Presepi Viventi (Nativity scenes with real actors), I Presepi Artistici (Nativity scenes created by craftsmen), and I Presepi Meccanici (Nativity scenes that move mechanically).
In the south of Italy, people love I Presepi most, but in the north Italians prefer I Mercatini di Natale, Christmas Markets. Here you can buy Christmas things or gifts and create a festive mood by drinking hot chocolate and eating pandoro e panettone. These markets are more concentrated at the edge of Italy with Germany and Austria. They summon thousands of people every year.
On Christmas day, we go to our relatives' houses and have a big meal. We give more importance to il pranzo di Natale, Christmas lunch. But in many parts of Italy, such as the south, they also celebrate il cenone di Natale--Christmas dinner.
In fact, La Vigilia di Natale, Christmas Eve, is almost more important than Christmas day because everyone feels passionate and excited from the Midnight Mass. Relatives and friends share love and presents are opened at this time.
What people really need during Italian Christmas is not presents; however, people still buy presents for their friends and relatives to make them happy and to show them love. Love is the central theme of Italian Christmas with empathy, respect and gentleness.
Hero image by author.