Christmas in Italy | Nativity scenes, mass, trees, markets and pageants

Christmas in Italy
Nativity Scenes, Mass, Trees, Markets and Pageants

[Regions of Italy]

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The Holiday Season in Italy

Countless foreigners travel to Italy during the Christmas season, and while they thrill to midnight mass in St. Peter's Square, they often complain that Italy is "not very Christmasy." This is certainly true if you're looking for brightly-lit fir trees, red and green window dressings or plaster reindeer. And although Epiphany, celebrated on January 6th, may actually be a more important holiday than December 25th, the Italians love this season so much that they commemorate it for an entire month, beginning on December 8th. In Assisi it begins even earlier, on the evening of December 7, when the townspeople make a huge bonfire in front of the fortress, to simulate the light with which the angels guided the Three Kings to the Holy Manger. The next morning, children wake up to find a small gift on their pillow, left there by the Holy Virgin.

he period between mid-December and early January was one constant celebration even in pagan Rome. It began with the Saturnalia, a winter solstice festival, and ended with the Roman New Year, the Calends. After Emperor Constantine adopted Christianity, instead of ending the holiday at the New Year, the celebration extended to January 6 when the Three Kings were believed to have reached the infant Jesus, and so the Romans, too, began to exchange presents on the Epiphany.

Today in Italy, Christmas trees are decorated, but the focal point of decoration is the Nativity scene. Italians take great pride in the creation of the manger, which was a sort of clever publicity stunt thought up in 1223 by St. Francis of Assisi, who wanted to involve the peasants in celebrating the life of Jesus. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City possesses a presepio from Naples that contains figurines carved from wood and dressed in garments of satin, along with 30 gold-trimmed angels of the Magi, all framed by majestic columns.

Bagpipes are the most common Italian Christmas sound. The zampognari, the shepherds who play the bagpipes, come down from their mountain homes at Christmas time and perform in the market squares. The playing of bagpipes is popular in the regions of Calabria and Abruzzo, and in the piazzas of Rome. The melodies played are adapted from old hill tunes. Modern zampognari wear the traditional outfits of sheepskin vests, leather breeches, and a woolen cloak. The tradition of bagpipes goes back to ancient Roman times. Legend says that the shepherds entertained the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem. Today, the zampognari perform their own private pilgrimage, stopping before every shrine to the Madonna and every Nativity scene.

Children in Italy believe in a female version of Santa Claus called La Befana, an old woman who flies on a broom and brings presents. According to Italian legend, Three Wise Men asked La Befana for directions to Bethlehem. La Befana was asked to join them but declined three times. It took an unusually bright light and a band of angels to convince La Befana that she must join the Wise Men, but she was too late. She never found the Christ child and has been searching ever since. On January 6, the Feast of Epiphany, La Befana goes out on her broom to drop off stockings filled with treats to all the sleeping children of Italy. Just as children in America leave milk and cookies for jolly Santa Claus, La Befana collects messages and refreshments throughout the night.


[Regions of Italy]