Christmas in Italy - Buon Natale
Christmas in Italy is a special time. Unlike many other countries Christmas
in Italy is not a time of frenzied commercial activity. It is a time for family,
for friends, and for the re-affirmation of faith.
Although things are inevitably changing the Christmas celebrations are still
heavily based on tradition, especially in the country areas. Here we will try
to give you a flavour of those traditions.
The Christmas celebrations start in mid-December and last until after the
Feast of the Epiphany on the 6th of January. Eight days before Christmas, a
special Novena of prayers and church services begins, ending on Christmas Day.
In the week before Christmas children dressed as shepherds go from house to
house playing songs on shepherds' pipes and giving recitations - the equivalent
of carol singing in other countries.
A strict fast is observed for 24 hours then on Christmas Eve a large meal
with many dishes is served. The traditional dinner, Cenone, is made up of fish
and seafood (no meat is eaten) cooked in various ways and served with assorted
vegetables. A Yule log, the Ceppo, is burned, and toasts drunk. The presepio
or Nativity Scene is a central feature of many homes for the Christmas celebrations
until the Epiphany. After Christmas Eve dinner everyone plays cards or games
until midnight. When the clock strikes midnight the youngest in every family
puts the Baby Jesus in the manger and each member of the family takes it in
turn to draw a small gift from a large ornamental bowl. Then everyone goes to
midnight mass. A typical event in many small towns such as Equi Terme, is a
living Nativity Scene with local people who act the parts.
On Christmas Day close friends and relatives go to each other's houses for
a massive dinner that often begins with antipasti followed by pasta with a walnut
cream sauce, various meats with vegetables, and ends with sweets and panettone
cake, all accompanied by wine and spumante. After coffee everyone young and
old plays tombola and then card games for pennies.
A special New Year Banquet is eaten on the last day of the year, with raisin
bread, turkey, chicken, rabbit, and spaghetti. Spumante is the drink of the
evening. On New Year's Day everyone sets off fireworks to welcome the New Year.
Many people throw old things out hoping to forget all the bad things of the
past year and have luck and fortune in the new. . At midnight everyone proposes
a toast to the New Year. New Year's Day dinner consists of many courses that
differ from region to region. However, zampone or cotechino with lentils is
present on every table. Lentils symbolize money so they obviously popular and
zampone is a symbol of abundance because it is a pig's trotter, rich in fat!
Children in Italy hang up their stockings on the Eve of the Feast of the Epiphany,
January 6 to celebrate the visit of the Three Kings to Bethlehem. Instead of
Santa Claus, children are expecting Befana. She is a witch-like character who
rides around on a broom. The legend is that the Three Wise Men, or Magi, stopped
at Befana's hut to ask directions on their way to Bethlehem and asked her to
join them. She refused. Later a shepherd asked her to join him in paying respect
to the Baby Jesus. Again, Befana said no. Later when it was dark and she saw
a great light in the skies, she thought perhaps she should have gone with the
Wise Men. So, she gathered some toys that had belonged to her own baby, who
had died, and ran to find the kings and the shepherd. But Befana could not find
them or the stable. Now, each year she looks for the Christ Child. And each
year since she can not find him, she leaves the gifts for the good children
of Italy and pieces of charcoal for the naughty ones.