One of the most important ways to celebrate Christmas in Italy is the birthplace scene.
San Francisco de Asís made the use of a cradle very popular to help tell the Christmas story in 1223 (Assisi is located in the center of Italy). The previous year he had visited Bethlehem and saw where Jesus was thought to have been born. Many Italian families have a Nativity cradle in their homes.
The city of Naples, in Italy, is world famous for its cradles and cradles. These are known as ‘Presepe Napoletano’ (which means Neapolitan cribs). It is believed that the first cradle scene in Naples dates back to 1025 and was in the Church of Santa Maria del Presepe (Santa Maria de la Cuna), even before San Francisco de Asís made cribs very popular!
Having cribs in your own home became popular in the sixteenth century and is still popular today (before that only churches and monasteries had cribs). Cots are traditionally placed on December 8. But the figure of the child Jesus is not put in the cradle until the night / night of December 24!
Sometimes, the scene of the Nativity is shown in the form of a pyramid that can be meters high. It is made of several levels of shelves and is decorated with colored paper, gold coated pineapples and small candles. A small star is often hung inside the top of the pyramid / triangle. The shelves on the manger scene may also contain fruits, sweets and gifts.
A special thing about Neapolitan cribs is that they always have extra people and objects “every day” (like houses, waterfalls, food, animals and even figures of famous people and politicians). Naples is also home to the world’s largest crib scene, which has more than 600 objects!
In Naples there is a street of creators of cribs called “Via San Gregorio Armeno”. On the street, you can buy decorations and wonderful figures made by hand, and of course full cots!
An old Italian custom is that children leave Carol singing and playing songs in shepherds’ pipes, with sandals and shepherd hats.
On Christmas Eve, it is common to not eat meat (and, sometimes, not dairy). Often a light meal of seafood is eaten and then people go to the service of midnight mass. The types of fish and how they are served vary according to the different regions of Italy.
When people return from Mass, if it is cold, you may have a piece of Italian Christmas cake called ‘Panettone’, which is like a sponge cake with a dry fruit flavor and a cup of hot chocolate. Here is a recipe for panettone. You can find more information about Christmas in Italy and the Italian Christmas Recipes on this site.
For many Italian-American families, a great Christmas Eve meal with different fish dishes is now a very popular tradition! It is known as The Feast of the Seven Fishes (‘Esta dei Sette Pesci’ in Italian). The party seems to have its roots in southern Italy and was bought from the United States by Italian immigrants in the 19th century. Now it seems more popular in America than in Italy!
The common types of fish eaten at the banquet include Baccala (Salted Cod), Clams, Squid, Sardines and Eels.
There are different theories about why seven fish dishes are eaten. Some think that seven represents the seven days of creation in the Bible, others say that it represents the seven holy sacraments of the Catholic Church. But some families have more than seven dishes! You can have nine (to represent the Christian trinity for three), 13 (to represent Jesus and his 12 disciples) or 11 (for the 11 disciples without Jesus or Judas!)!
Christmas celebrations begin eight days before Christmas with special “Novenas” or a series of prayers and religious services.
Some families have a ‘Ceppo’ or Yule Log that burns during the holiday season.
In Italian, Feliz / Feliz Navidad is ‘Buon Natale’, in Sicilian it is ‘Bon Natali’ and in Ladin (spoken in some parts of the northern region of Italy of South Tyrol) it is ‘Bon / Bun Nadèl’.
Epiphany is also important in Italy. On the night of the Epiphany, the children believe that an old woman named ‘Befana’ brings them gifts. The story about Befana’s gift presentation is very similar to Babushka’s story. The children put the stockings next to the fireplace so that Befana fills them. In some parts of northern Italy, the Magi can bring you present instead of Befana. On Christmas day, ‘Babbo Natale’ (Santa Claus) could bring you some small gifts, but the main day for presenting gifts is at Epiphany.