Thursday, 24 December 2015

A Very Italian Christmas - Five Traditions From Italy

Thinking of celebrating Christmas with an Italian twist this year? There are a number of ways that Italian celebrations differ from ours. Their Christmas season starts with a national holiday on 8th December, and finishes with the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6th. Here are five of their most popular traditions:

L'Immacolata Concezione

The Italian Christmas season begins with a celebration of the Immaculate Conception (L'Immacolata Concezione) on 8th December. This is a national holiday in Italy with schools and offices closed across the country.

The Nativity Scene

Italian families traditionally recreate their own nativity scene in their home, alongside the Christmas tree. This usually features not only the stable and manger, but lots of farm animals and other figurines too. One important addition is left until midnight on Christmas Eve though - the baby Jesus.

Nativity Scene in Naples

Panettone & Pandoro

Forget Christmas pudding, these are the traditional cakes of Christmas in Italy. Huge in size and dry in texture, I can't honestly say I'm a huge fan. But who am I to argue with tradition? After all, we tuck into the equally questionable brussels sprouts and turkey every year over here.

Christmas Panettone

Christmas Eve Dinner & Midnight Mass

No meat is eaten on Christmas Eve in Italy, instead Italians tuck into fish, usually followed by a trip to Midnight Mass. Abstaining from red meat (and sometimes dairy) comes from the Catholic tradition of fasting the eve before a celebration. In Italian-American communities in the USA, this tradition has morphed into the 'Feast of the Seven Fishes,' in which seven or more different fishes are eaten on Christmas Eve.

Midnight Mass is another popular tradition, with many families heading down to their local church at midnight to take part. The Vatican also holds a Midnight Mass every Christmas Eve, however the event is so popular that they recommend booking (free) tickets 2 - 6 months in advance!

La Befana

La Befana is a kind, old witch who brings children presents on January 6th, the day of The Feast of the Epiphany.

The story of La Befana has its roots in Roman times, in which La Befana was seen as a Mother Nature-type figure who flew over the crops on New Years' Eve, in order to encourage a good yield the following year.

In the Christianised version, La Befana is an old lady who helps direct the Three Wise Men to baby Jesus in Bethlehem. However, despite their insistence, she turns down the offer to travel with them. She later regrets her decision and travels across the country to try and find them, giving sweets to little children along the way in the hope that one of them is the baby Jesus.

Nowadays, in an echo of modern Father Christmas, La Befana is said to come down the chimney via her broomstick. She leaves stockings  filled with sweets outside the bedrooms of good Italian children. Bad luck for any naughty children though - they receive only lumps of coal.

La Befana, the kind witch of Christmas

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