Italian Christmas Traditions:
How they Celebrate Christmas in Italy
Whether you come from an Italian background yourself or not, you probably image that Italian Christmas traditions must be really rich and varied. After all, it's one of the oldest civilizations in the world.
Well... you'd certainly be right! Christmas traditions in Italy, while different in many ways from the Anglo traditions celebrated in, say, the USA, are complex, varied, and full of history and ritual. So if you're planning a special Christmas celebration this year, whether it be a casual family dinner or a big Christmas bash, giving it a little bit of Italy is a wonderful way to make it truly special.
When you're done here, you'll find other ways to make your Christmas special at Christmas Dinner and Party Planning Central, including whole sections devoted to:
Five Famous Italian Christmas Traditions
Italian Christmas traditions generally blend two spiritual traditions. One derives from the ancient Roman heritage of the region with a holiday called Saturnalia, which is traditionally celebrated on winter solstice. The second set of traditions comes from the Advent (Natale), which celebrates the birth of Jesus.
Interesting Fact: Many scholars believe that the date for Christmas was decided upon to correlate with the solstice so that the people of the region would more easily adapt to the new faith.
1. Piping in the Holiday
While this particular Italian Christmas tradition is slowly fading, it's one that resonates with both spiritual traditions. Fifers open the holiday season as they hike down neighboring mountains. This custom goes back to the time when bards would play and sing to heighten the celebratory feelings throughout the area.
2. Nativity Scenes
Similar to the Mexican Chrismtas tradition
, you will see a lot of manger scenes throughout Italy at this time of year. Many are highly artistic (again a Romanesque influence). Interestingly enough, some of the Churches have light-hearted contests with each other to see who can create the best scenery complete with landscapes. Some regional artists specialize in JUST making these elaborate panoramas.
3. Italian Yule Log Celebration
In Tuscany, one of the most important Italian Christmas traditions is the celebration of Festa di Ceppo, or "Festival of the Log." This festival begins on Christmas Eve, when a huge log is set ablaze. Traditionally, this gets cut from the biggest tree a person can find.
Pagan and Christian. In pagan customs, the lighting of the log speaks of the power of life and the "reborn" sun of the winter solstice. To the pagans, each fire lit was meant to give the sun more strength. But the Yule Log is also a Christian tradition in Italy. In the Christian version, it's before the Yule log that Mary warms her newborn child.
Traditions Surrounding the Yule Log. There has always been a great deal of ritual associated with the Yule log in many homes. In one, the head of the household was to gather the family together and lay the log in a bed of juniper. Some coins were placed near the fire, and the flames received an offering of wine while the family would sing Ave Maria del Ceppo. The log was to continue burning non-stop until New Years to bring good luck. Afterwards, ashes were often used as charms to protect the home from lightning or hail damage.
4. Italian Festive Christmas Foods
Whether you're celebrating in Italy or creating your own little Italy all the way across the world, what would any Italian Christmas tradition be without a hearty meal? The food for Christmas Eve throughout the region is often fish be it baked, fried, or roasted. Additionally, you may see pork sausage and turkey with stuffing, even as we see in some American, Canadian, or English homes.
The entire holiday season is one in which sweet treats are a star. Nougat, gingerbread, fruit cake, sweet honey breads, and marzipan are a few examples of the goodies you'll find in nearly any Italian home until well after New Years. The candies represent the earth's bounty and life's sweetness.
Love Italy? Here at Divine Dinner Party, there's a whole section devoted to Italian foods and traditions!
5. Mrs. Claus: She's Really Italian!
One of the most beloved Italian Christmas traditions is the figure of La Befana, who is effectively the female equivalent of Santa. It's customary for children to put out their shoes on January 6th to receive candies along with a gift of wine and food so La Befana can continue on her way with a full stomach.
La Befana: La Befana appears as an elderly woman riding a broom. She's covered in soot because she enters the home through chimneys (sound familiar?). Prior to candies, La Befana delivered honeyed figs and dates similar to an ancient pagan goddess Strenia, who oversaw New Year's gift giving.
No matter why you celebrate Christmas or how you want to plan your festivities this year, there's a lot to be taken from other cultures around the world. Italian Christmas traditions are full of history and custom... and are a wonderful addition to your Christmas. Even if, like me, you don't have a drop of Italian blood in your veins!
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