Buon Natale – the rich Christmas traditions of Italy
By Helen Breen
Italians celebrate Christmas for a full month from the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8 through the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6. Although some regional differences exist, the month basically is devoted to religious observances and spending time with family and friends. While food is an essential focus of the season, other traditions include:
The presepe or crib, depicting the stable scene surrounding the birth of Christ, is essential to the observance of Christmas. Its origins date back to St. Francis of Assisi, who in 1223 wished to create a “natural environment” for the Nativity with real characters, including “shepherds, friars, and barons.” The early statuary was crafted from terracotta and wood. “Crèche central” is the Via San Gregorio Armeno in downtown Naples, home to hundreds of small shops featuring handmade presepe figures.
Another traditional Christmas decoration is the ceppo, a wooden frame a few feet high designed in a pyramid shape. This structure supports several tiers of shelves, often with a manger scene at the base. Small gifts of fruit and candy line the shelves above. Also known as the “Tree of Light,” the ceppo is sometimes “entirely decorated with colored paper, gilt pinecones, and miniature colored pennants.” A star or angel may be hung at its apex.
La Befana & the Epiphany
“La Befana” or the “Christmas Witch” is another treasured Italian holiday institution associated with the Feast of the Epiphany when the Three Kings – Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar – arrived in Bethlehem with gifts for the Christ Child. On the way, they had stopped at La Befana’s house to ask directions. She could not help them, yet offered them shelter for the night. As they were leaving the next morning, the Kings invited her to accompany them. But she declined because she was too busy cleaning the house.
She soon regretted that decision. After gathering up some toys that had belonged to her son who died, she flew on her broomstick in search of the Wise Men. Although La Befana never found them, she continues her quest, leaving small gifts for good children on the Feast of the Epiphany. Some say she then cleans their houses with her trusty broom.
Adding to the festivities on Christmas Eve are the Zampognari, shepherds who play bagpipes. Dressed in their “traditional outfits of sheepskin vests, leather breeches, and dark woolen cloaks,” they descend from the hills and stop to play their music at every shrine and nativity scene.
For most Italians, Christmas Eve is the highpoint of the year, observing “La Vigilia,” the vigil awaiting the birth of the Savior. This observance is often referred to as the “Feast of the Seven Fishes” because Roman Catholics customarily abstained from eating meat on the eve of the holy day. While the number of fish dishes is negotiable in modern times, selections often include capitone (eel), calamari (squid) and baccalà (salted dried cod fish) – accompanied, of course, with plenty of pasta. Sweets might feature panettone, an Italian bread, something like a fruitcake, baked in a tall cylindrical shaped pan. After this hardy repast, families would often attend Midnight Mass.
Lunch on Christmas Day, which could last several hours, is meat-based. Starters might include an antipasto spread featuring “dry cured meats, salami, fine Italian cheeses, briny olive, artichokes and more.” Pasta follows, often baked like ravioli, lasagna and manicotti. Then comes the meat. “Natale entrees” could be “roasted veal, baked chicken, sausages, or braised beef” with a variety of vegetables. And let us not forget the assortment of creamy desserts, the coffee and plenty of red wine.
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