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Christmas in Italy


By Jeanne Outlaw-Cannavo

This time of year can get hectic. Every-one’s getting ready for Christmas, the most wonderful time of the year! Unfortunately, it has also taken on the theme of celebrating commercialization.

But in modern-day Italy the celebration of Christmas, while it has taken on some commercialization, maintains its own unique flavor, combining pastoral traditions, traditional cultural rites and modern influences that mark this important event.

Italians spend all of Advent preparing for the big day, keeping the real meaning of Christmas in the front of their minds all season long. Some Italians have adopted some outside influence. For instance, a few families, especially in the north, decorate a tree in their homes.

However, the focal point of deco-ration 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, support-ing several tiers of thin shelves, which is entirely decorated with colored 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. Most importantly, whether it’s homemade limoncello or a handmade baby blanket, Italians hold dear that gifts mean so much more when made with love.

The figure of Babbo Natale, Father Christmas, who is better known to us as Santa Claus, with his red suit and big white beard, is becoming more widespread. How-ever, many of the children of Italy still hang up their stockings on the Feast of Epiphany on Jan. 6. 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. An 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, a goatskin bagpipe and the other the ciaramella, a wooden flute.

The melodies are adapted from old hill tunes. Modern Zampognari wear traditional outfits of sheepskin vests, leather breeches and a woolen cloak. Legend says that the shepherds entertained the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem. Today, the Zampognaristop 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 meatless dishes 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 splendor and candlelight.

With such a rich mixture of traditions and a focus on family and love, Italy offers something for everyone. So, whether you make a Christmas tree or presepio, wait for Father Christmas or la Befana, gift from the heart or combine them all … as they say in the old country … Buon Natale!

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