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In a nation whose very flag bears the colours of Christmas – red, white, and green – it is not surprising to find that Christmas is observed with great reverence as well as great fanfare. As over 80 percent of Italy’s 60 million people identify as Roman Catholic, it also not surprising to find Christmas kept in a traditionally “Catholic way.” Yet, there are also many unique aspects of the Italian Christmas season, which runs from December 8th, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, until January 6th, the date of Epiphany, when the Three Wise Men are thought to have visited the baby Jesus.
In Italy, churches hold special masses called “Novenas” during the eight days leading up to Christmas Day. These services include both prayer and teaching sessions, which are meant to ready the minds and hearts of attendees for the Christmas season. As Christmas approaches, lights, Christmas trees, and other decorations begin to appear at marketplaces, malls, shops, homes, and along major streets.
The most important decorations, however, are the presepios (nativity scenes), which can be seen in churches, piazzas (plazas), and other public areas. Straw, cribs, and statues of Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, peasants, and much more will be in the manger. Baby Jesus, however, will not show up in his crib until late on Christmas Eve. Some presepios are built in the shape of a pyramid with stair-step shelves on which figurines are placed. Coloured paper, gold-covered pine cones, miniature candles, and a star on top of the pyramid are often part of the decor. You may also see presents, candies, and fruits included.
A meatless dinner is traditionally eaten on Christmas Eve, frequently including fish or other seafood, after which the faithful make their way to midnight mass. There, they may see a living nativity scene with actors and live animals, and they will welcome Christmas Morning with great jubilation. After mass, many will return home to treat themselves to a slice of “Panettone” (Italian Christmas bread), which is a very dry and very “fruity” sponge cake. To counteract the dryness, a cup of hot cocoa or other drink may accompany it. On Christmas Day, a larger dinner that includes meat dishes is usually eaten, finally breaking the fasting period of Lent.
Other Italian Christmas traditions include: children caroling and making music with pipes while dressed up in shepherds’ clothes, having bonfires on Christmas Eve in the town square, and burning a “Yule log” continuously throughout the whole Christmas season.
Things to do
Some things to do if travelling in Italy around this time of year include:
- Visit Naples to see its famous “Neapolitan cribs.” Naples is famous for its nativity crib industry, and the tradition extends back to the 11th Century A.D. You will see full presepios set up in Naples as well, with numerous characters included, including of famous people not otherwise associated with Christmas. You may also catch a glimpse of the largest presepio in the world, which has over 600 figurines. You can also shop the Via San Gregorio Armeno and its numerous nativity crib shops.
- See Rome decked out for the holidays. Rome will be decorated with gigantic Christmas trees, a host of presepios, and lights displays. You can also visit the busy Christmas markets for your Yuletide shopping. Since Vatican City is right in the middle of Rome, you may wish to stop by for midnight mass held by the Pope right inside St. Peter’s Basilica. Those who cannot get a front row seat can still watch on a large screen out in the nearby square.
If in Italy for the Yuletide, be sure to enjoy the many, long-cherished Christmas traditions, and be sure to wish everyone a “Buon Natale!” (Merry Christmas!)