Christmas in Italy is a largely Catholic celebration, with much made of the feast days in both the run up to Christmas and after Christmas Day itself. The Christmas celebrations properly start on December 17th, with special ‘Novenas’ (a series of prayers) and church services held every day. Some families light their ‘Creppo’, or Yule Log, on this day, and burn it throughout the Christmas season.
Happy Christmas in Italian is ‘Buon Natale’ (Bwon Nat-al-ay), and one of the most important ways of celebrating Christmas for Italians is the Nativity scene. This is because the nativity scene was popularised by St. Francis of Assisi, an Italian saint, in 1223. St. Francis was inspired by a visit to Bethlehem the previous year, where he saw the stable that Jesus was supposedly born in.
In fact, the city of Naples in central Italy is famous for its cribs and crib making. Cribs from the city are called as ‘Presepe Napoletano’ (Neapolitan Cribs), and the first nativity scene in Naples is thought to go back to 1025, even before St. Francis of Assisi had popularised the idea.
In Naples, there is a street of nativity scene makers called the ‘Via San Gregorio Armeno’, where you can buy wonderful hand made crib decorations and figures as well as cribs. Neapolitan scenes always display not only characters and figures from the Christmas Story, but everyday people and objects (such as houses, food, animals, and figures of famous people and politicians). Naples is also the home to the largest crib scene in the world, which has over 600 objects on it!
Another Italian Christmas custom is that no meat (and sometimes dairy) is to be eaten eaten; instead, a light seafood meal is consumed to prepare for the arrival of Jesus, and then people go to the Midnight Mass service. When people return from Mass, people have a slices of Italian Christmas Cake called ‘Panettone’, a dry fruity sponge cake similar to those made in England and Ireland.
Italian families might also have a large Christmas Eve meal, which is made up of various fish dishes, called ‘Esta dei Sette Pesci’ (The Feast of the Seven Fishes). The feast has roots in southern Italy, and was later bought to the USA by Italian immigrants in the 1800s. Common types of fish eaten in the feast include Baccala (salted Cod), Clams, Calamari, Sardines and Eel.
There are numerous theories as to why there seven fish dishes are eaten; some think that seven represents the seven days of creation in the Bible, others say it represents the seven holy sacraments of the Catholic Church. Some families even have nine dishes (to represent three times the Holy Trinity), 13 (to represent Jesus and his 12 disciples) or 11 (for the 11 disciples without Jesus or Judas).
January 6th, or The Feast of the Ephiphany, is also important in Italy. On the night of January 6th, children believe an old lady called ‘Befana’ brings presents for them. The story about Befana bringing presents is very similar to the story of Babushka. Children put their stockings by the fireplace for Befana to fill.
In parts of northern Italy, the Three Wise Men sometimes bring children presents rather than Befana. On Christmas day ‘Babbo Natale’ (Santa Claus) might also bring small gifts, but the main day for present giving is on January 6th.