This week we want to stop one moment and dedicate a post to Christmas holidays, and to the endless, secular, heartwarming Christmas traditions in Italy. Here in Italy, Christmas celebration lasts about one month, starting on December 8th, the day of the “Immacolata”, on which traditionally the “presepe” (Nativity scene) and the Christmas tree are set up, and lasting until the Epiphany, celebrating the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus, on January 6th.
The first Nativity scene in the world
On December 24, 1223 St. Francis of Assisi commissioned Giovanni Vellita, a villager of Greccio, in the province of Lazio, to create what was to be the first Nativity scene in the world. It was created in one of the caves of the local monastery. A layer of straw had been spread on the stone floor and a primitive crib had been placed in a corner. Around it were a donkey, an ox and a dozen of peasants. From that moment on, the Italian tradition of the “presepe” was born.
Today, the presepe consists of small, hand-carved figurines, usually made in the region of Naples, set in scenes representing Jesus’ birth. However, the Italian presepe often consists of more than just a traditional nativity crib with the Holy Family and baby Jesus in the stable. Italian families usually build an entire scene or village consisting of hand-made houses, bridges and shops, using cork to create mountains, to which electrically powered wells and lights are added. Baby Jesus is only added to the scene on Christmas night.
It is one of the most beloved and enduring symbols and activities of the Christmas season.
Christmas Eve & Christmas Day
Besides the “presepe” and the Christmas tree, there are many other traditional decorations that you will find in Italian houses during the Christmas period. We’re talking about garlands, lights, candles, centerpieces and all types of greenery that are typically used to enhance the Christmas atmosphere and make the house joyful, colorful and warm.
In Italy, Christmas Eve is usually a family gathering. Traditionally, the “cenone” (Christmas supper) is served at home and the menu varies from region to region, but traditionally it excludes meat items and is based mainly on fish. Family parties continue until almost midnight when everyone attends church services and worships.
The Christmas Day dinner is the most important Christmas family tradition in Italy. Usually it is a large meal complete with appetizers, starters, first and main course, and desserts. The main course can be stuffed cappone (capon) or tacchino, mixed roast, roast beef or cotechino.
For dessert, there are all kinds of fancy holiday breads, such as panettone, filled with candied fruits, and such sweets as cannoli, a cheese-filled pastry, and many other delicacies. Another famous Christmas bread is pandoro which originated from Verona. The Torrone (nougat), with honey or chocolate almonds or pistachios, is the most typical of the Christmas sweets.
Saint Stephen’s Day, the day after Christmas and the Feast of the first Christian martyr, is a public holiday in Italy. It is not uncommon that couples decide to marry during Christmas, to enjoy the magical atmosphere of traditions and holidays that surrounds wintertime in Italy.
If you wish to explore this possibility too, our advice for the best locations during Christmas are for sure the Alps, Dolomites and Apennines but also Sicily and Apulia are becoming more and more popular in winter.
See you next time!