If you choose Christmas time to come to Italy, take a look at these interesting facts to experience the ‘bel paese’ to its fullest!
1. Festivities don’t end on December 25
In Italy the holiday spirit begins on December 8th, day of the Immaculate Conception (Immacolata Concezione), when many Italians traditionally decorate their Christmas trees and put up the Nativity scenes. It ends on January 6th, the Epiphany, so usually companies and always schools close for two weeks from December 24th (Christmas Eve) till the Epifania as we call it in Italian.
2. Gifts – When will you open yours?
Depending on the region gifts could be opened on Saint Lucy’s Day (December 13th) in many northern hamlets where Santa Lucia brings gifts to children or on December 25th and then again on the Epiphany on January 6th. That’s the day when the Befana arrives. She is a broom-riding old lady that fills the stockings of the good children all over Italy with sweets and leaves a lump of coal for the naughty ones.
3. Nativity scenes
The presepe or Nativity scene is one of the most important decorations at Christmas. They are carefully arranged in churches as well as other public areas and family homes. Traditionally the figurine of baby Jesus is not added until Christmas Day. Also the Three Wise Men are added on January 6th. It usually represents the Holy Family in the stable. The largest ones includes the whole town of Bethlehem with animals, houses and people going on about their daily lives. Sometimes there’s a contemporary twist, so don’t be surprised to bump into a footballer or a politician. These unique figurines are made in Naples where the making of Christmas cribs is an ancient art which has been mastered for many centuries and you can find many shops in the famous San Gregorio Armeno street.
But many places also organize the presepe vivente (living nativity scene) a re-enacted within the streets of Medieval hamlets.
4. Bagpipes and tombola season
We are not in Scotland, but if you happen to visit Rome or Southern Italy during the festive period, keep an eye out for the zampognari, or bagpipe players. They play in streets and squares, normally dressed in traditional sheepskin and wool cloaks and symbolise the arrival of the shepherds to greet the baby Jesus.
Another tradition spreading across the country is playing tombola. A game similar to bingo that gathers everyone from kids to elders. It is very common to play cards too.
5. Panettone or pandoro?
You may have heard the two traditional Italian Christmas cakes, Panettone and Pandoro. The first is a sweet bread filled with raisins and candied fruit while the other is a tall, star-shaped cake sprinkled with icing sugar. Which one do you prefer?
6. Christmas bonus
December is the month when many workers are eagerly awaiting for their tredicesima (13th month pay), an extra month’s salary that arrives just in time for gift shopping.
7. On Christmas Eve don’t eat meat
The traditional Christmas Eve dinner is meatless. A wealth of fish dishes can be prepared with some regional specialties depending on the area.
After dinner, many Catholic people attend the Midnight Mass.