You know the feeling: that unmistakeable festive spirit that might either turn you into the Grinch by mid-November or make you want to hang Christmas decorations throughout the neighbourhood the day after Halloween. Whether you celebrate Christmas or not, whether you partake in the religious rituals or simply enjoy the yule tide and spending time with your family and friends, whether you collect advent calendars or suffer through another season of ugly jumpers, you do know the feeling, the atmosphere, the sounds, smells and colours. In short, the traditions that make Christmas so… Christmassy. Or do you? Despite the winter holidays being possibly the most globalised time of year, there are still several national and regional differences in the way they are celebrated. If you are planning to spend these holidays in Italy, check out these five little known facts about Christmas in Italy.
3 weird Italian Christmas traditions
’Tis the season… but when does it start?
Unlike most Countries, Italy does have a definite answer to the question “is it time to put up Christmas decorations yet?” and that answer is “If it’s past December 8th, then yes, it is”. Not that shop windows follow this rule, but “Christmas”, in the broad sense, is supposed to start on the day that celebrates the Immaculate Conception – which, in Italy, is a national holiday. Traditionally, this is the day that families spend together, at home, decorating the Christmas tree or setting up the nativity scene (the former being more popular in the North, the latter in the South). We also have a definite answer to the question “is it time to take down the Christmas decorations yet?” – we do that on January the 6th, which in many Countries is thought of as Twelfth Night. Italy has a stronger tradition connected to this day than most Countries. This is supposed to be the night in which the Three Wise Men gave their gifts to the Baby Jesus. In Italy, for reasons that are variously interpreted, this has turned into an occasion to give treats to children (and grownups too). Since Santa is still recovering from its exertions, the task is entrusted to an old woman, known as the Befana, who rides a flying broomstick and climbs down chimneys and out of fireplaces to fill stockings with sweets and nuts. Naughty children, however, should beware: all they get will be lumps of coal!
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Christmas dinner or Christmas lunch?
If there is food to be had, you can trust us to pay attention to it, develop a tradition around it and make it mouth-wateringly perfect. Different Countries have different traditions when it comes to the main shared meal of the Chritsmas holidays: it may be lunch on Christmas day or high dinner on Christmas Eve, followed by midnight mass, according to the Catholic tradition. When ideally asked to choose between to banquets, Italians – of course – chose both, but planned them to be slightly different. The main meals of the holidays are, therefore, dinner on Christmas Eve and lunch on Christmas day. Now, the Catholic tradition, which is predominant in Italy and mostly adopted even by non-Catholics, prescribes a “lean” meal on Christmas Eve, as the faithful are supposed to “fast” before the big day. As it is the case with most of these traditions, “fasting” was at some point updated to “abstaining”, which was eventually translated into “not eating meat or at least not eating red meat”. This means that, on Christmas Eve, you are in for an eight- or nine-course meal, but you are still “abstaining” because most recipes will be fish-based. And because nobody ever said anything about cheese and panettone, there will be plenty of those, but no salami in the hors d’oeuvres. On Christmas day, on the other hand, everything goes. Yes, you will still be full from the previous evening’s dinner, but you will still drag yourself to the table for lunch and tuck in, because you have been telling yourself for weeks now that “there will be time for dieting after Christmas”. That is, unless you stock up on sweets again when the Befana pays a visit to your house.
Who is climbing down your chimney?
Christmas gifts are a more or less universal tradition, that is declined differently in various cultures and that derives from celebrations that even precede Christianity itself. Different characters have been created through the centuries, which folkloristic traditions entrust with the task of bringing gifts. While Santa Claus is the most widely recognised of these figures worldwide, there are several regional variations that are passed from generation to generation and almost jealously preserved. In many Italian regions, for instance, St. Lucia is said to be the bringer of gifts, whose arrival is heralded by the tinkling of a little bell. This tradition is particularly popular in the North, in the whole region of Trentino-Alto Adige and in some parts of Lombardy, Emilia Romagna, Veneto and Friuli. In some households throughout the Country, the bringing of the gifts is entrusted to the Baby Jesus himself, to whom many children write letters before Christmas, to ask for presents as reward for their good behaviour.