Christmas traditions in Italy

by Maria Lamkin

December 1999


With all of its merriment, the Italian way of celebrating this holiday resembles that of other countries - but the background of Christmas (Natale) in this country is much more complex than one would expect.

In the cults and religion of ancient Rome (often centered on the emperor) the function of the festivity known as "natale" was to celebrate such major events as the foundation of a city or the birth of a personality or a divinity. Rome celebrated its own on April 21st; farther on, the "dies natalis" of the emperor became a public festivity, its pomp being comparable to the "natale" of some divinities whose date of birth was particularly meaningful. Chief among them was that of Mithra: December 25th was the date on which to celebrate at the same time its "natale" and the winter solstice. The date of birth of the Holy Child (who came to the Earth to redeem man, thus illuminating his life) was selected as to coincide with the period in which daylight hours start to lengthen, that is soon after the winter solstice.

As everywhere else, the main characteristics of Christmas are therefore an immense joy, the abundance of light, and sweet carols. Streets are decorated with red or green carpeting and especially with blinking multi-colored lights which may represent the Star of the Presepio, a Christmas tree, or other motifs. A particular atmosphere is created by the “zampognari”, the players who can be heard playing only in this period of the year. During the nine days that precede this holiday the “zampognari” (shepherds from nearby mountain areas) stroll around the main roads of small and big cities filling them with carols. They always go in pairs; one plays the goatskin bagpipe known as “zampogna” or "cornamusa"(a distant cousin of the Scottish bagpipe) while the other plays the “ciaramella” (a wooden flute).

The customs connected with this festivity are partly pre-Christian, partly more recent. Among the first we can include the tradition (clearly originated from the Roman Saturnalis) consisting in the use of illuminations and the exchange of gifts. To this we need to add the "log"("ceppo" of north-European origin) that is kept on from Christmas to New Year's Day. As it represents the vitality of fire, it denotes the need for propitiation; its slow consumption can be identified with the "extinction" of the old year and of whatever negative elements it has brought with itself.

To the archaic cult of trees - and therefore to a foreign civilization - we owe the tradition of Christmas trees. Widely adopted since WWII mostly because of the American influence, trees (having thus been Italianized) adorn for this festivity every house and road. The largest Christmas tree of the world (even mentioned in the "Guinness Book of World Records") is rebuilt every year at Gubbio (Perugia) in the region of Umbria. Eight hundred sources of light, together with 12 kilometers of cables, are distributed along the slopes of Mount Igino in such a way as to draw an extraordinarily bright tree that shines between December 7th and January 11th. Very famous is also the fir tree which each year in turn a North European country donates to the Vatican City and which, together with the beautiful Manger and its life-size figures, can be admired in St. Peter's Square.

Quite widespread is also, and obviously, the figure of "Babbo Natale." In this case as well a tradition not of Italian origin is now an integral component of our celebrations. Just like his famous brother (or cousin?) Santa Claus, Babbo Natale wears a splendid red suit and a big white beard, lives in northern countries, travels on a sleigh drawn by reindeers, and in the cheerful Christmas night crosses the sky to bring gifts to children …and to everybody else. For some – actually, I would say for few - “Babbo Natale” is replaced by “Gesų Bambino”(Baby Jesus): the function is the same and so is the anxiousness with which children await the arrival of either one. Oh, naturally: neither one will arrive if you have not sent him your little letter or if you have not behaved (“...he knows who’s good and bad...”). Red mailboxes abound in which children can drop their tender little letters. By the way: among the prizes for its lottery, a famous brand of Italian Christmas cakes has lately included a visit to Santa Claus’ home. Then Santa Claus MUST EXIST!

Families typically gather around the Nativity scene, which has ever since been the true core of Christmas throughout Italy – although as we have seen the tradition of tree-decorating has become the second characteristic of the Italian celebration. The "Presepio" or "Presepe" goes back to 1223. In that year St. Francis of Assisi, to the aim of rendering the events described by the Holy Scriptures more easily understandable, represented for the first time the birth of the Holy Child at Greccio (near Rieti). More or less in the same epoch the Tuscan architect and sculptor Arnolfo di Cambio created a presepe part of which has been preserved in the basilica of St. Maria Maggiore in Rome. In the following centuries this symbol was developed thanks to the orders of the Dominicans and the Jesuits who handmade many types, some of which were even self-moving. Few of them have reached us because of the brittleness of the material and particularly of the terracotta with which the first mangers were built. The most notable are those of the Renaissance (for instance, the one in wood which St. Giovanni a Carbonara constructed in Naples in 1484). Only at the beginning of the XVI century, thanks to St. Gaetano of Thiene (regarded as the inventor of popular-style mangers), did these scenes start including secondary characters. In the XVII and in the XVIII century this "tradition within the tradition" began to develop in Rome (St. Maria in Aracoeli), in Genoa, in Sicily and in particular in Naples. In this last city, spectacular compositions were displayed in churches and in the chapels of noble families. With the passing of time the manufacture became more and more valuable owing to the minute details of the statuettes and the objects as well as to the scenery. Other than the main characters (the Holy Child, Jesus’ Mother and St. Joseph, surrounded by the ox, the donkey, some angels, and the shepherds), this in fact comprised a number of sophisticated landscape elements. Collaborating with expert artisans, the most renowned artists (like Somma, Sanmartino, and Vaccaro in Naples; Maragliano in Genoa; and Matera in Sicily) created figurines which they carved in wood with heads, hands and feet in terracotta and which they donned in very elegant suits and jewels. Some of these samples, subsequently reconstructed, are visible in the Museum of St. Martino in Naples; in the King's Palace of Caserta; in the church of St. Chiara in Naples (several figurines were some years ago purloined but, having luckily been retrieved, have been restored to their original setting); and in the Gallery of Palazzo Rosso in Genoa.

The fashion in which this tradition has developed in Naples deserves a particularly in-depth treatment. Not only do this city's artisans construct figurines, castles, villages and any possible thing with which to embellish these scenes, but they also seem to provide the apt atmosphere with which to enhance these indispensable ingredients. Here, the main characters (not always with their entourage or with the traditional environment of the manger or the mountain cottages) are often shown in peculiar displays. I remember the amazement which some years ago I felt at the sight of three Wise Men. They wore mantles of delicate velvet and silk decorated by gilded braids; all of this as sophisticated as to call to the mind the richest fabrics of the Far East. Just as intense has always been my amazement in noticing the expressiveness of the facial expressions and the wealth of details. How can one not marvel at the sight of the keys of the shepherds' pipes or bagpipes or of the minute baskets containing fruit, vegetable, fishes, etc., which often complete these scenes? The reader ought to keep in mind that when I speak of baskets I refer to something the size of which is at the most three centimeters, or about an inch square. Perhaps the makers of micro-chips have learnt something from the art of presepe-makers (the "Presepari")? Needless to say, the perfection of these mangers does not end here: it is impossible not to be amazed at the sight of the windmills, of the lights in the cottages, and of the fire that reverberates in the tiny pizza ovens. Far from merely representing and selling the classical characters, the little statues built by this city's "Presepari " (who with their scenery create a marvelous atmosphere in the central area of "Spaccanapoli") often represent individuals made famous by current affairs. For instance, 1997 was the year of Princess Diana and Mother Theresa of Calcutta; to these were added in 1998 President Clinton and his "friend " Monica. It is important to clarify, however, that usually these new characters are purchased not as an addition to a Presepe but simply as little ornaments for one's home. Owing to this tradition Spaccanapoli and Via S.Gregorio Armeno (an area which during this period is renamed "Christmas Alley") are so noteworthy as to have been acknowledged by UNESCO as a world treasure.... Decidedly a show not to miss.

Throughout the country, an inexhaustible creativeness keeps giving shape to "Nativity Scenes" of all possible kinds, displayed in houses, churches, or public gathering places. There are the life-size ones, the monumental ones, and the animated ones (a variety which symbolizes the different arts and crafts). Even the material in which they are constructed varies. It ranges from wax (as it happens at Buscemi, in Sicily, and at Caltagirone, still in Sicily; because of the European shows in which its production is displayed, this center is increasingly becoming famous as "The City of Presepe") to wood (for instance at Cesenatico, where the Child sees the light not between the ox and the donkey, but between dolphins engraved in this material; or in the Varesotto, close to Varese, where an eighty-year-old "young fellow " has put together 140 figures he himself has hand-carved out of tree roots with few modifications). Even more impressive are the mangers set in caves (Santadė, in Sardinia), over watercourses (at Marcheno close to Brescia, where a presepe is built over the river), or even in the sea (Amalfi). Last but not least are the Nativity Scenes of Varese (where the Pasta Factory of Cantų builds its own Presepe in...pasta) and Gemona (Udine) (where the figurines are built by the VIPs of shows and plays). Finally, it is worth mentioning that innumerable live "Nativity Scenes" are enacted year after year in centers both great and small.

Other initiatives as well are organized to celebrate this festivity. UNESCO has for example established in Bethlehem a permanent Museum using Nativity scenes that come from the “International Show of Presepi” usually held in Verona. Quite renowned is finally the mega-exhibit "Natale Oggi" which is held in Rome and which hosts objects made all over the world to honor Christmas.

Italy's diverse traditions and multicultural background find their best expression in the cuisine of this festive period. The ingredients of the “cenone” (“big supper”) and the cakes served for this holiday may present considerable differences among the different areas of the country. For example, among the cakes served in the South are the famous “struffoli” (a dessert shaped made with little balls of dough which, having been fried, are then set in a plate, shaped like a pie, and covered with plenty of honey and small candied confetti sprinkled over the top). In the same area the meals of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are based on seafood (especially spaghetti with clams, mussels, salted cod and various crustaceans); in the North both meat and fish are served. What all the Italians share, however, is first of all dried fruit, which includes dried figs, figs with almonds, dates, walnuts, almonds, and hazelnuts. Second, a dessert that with the passing of time has become common on our tables is the "log", which as we have seen has a lot to do with the symbolism of this period and which is often prepared in the chocolate-covered version. The other regional desserts now consumed throughout the country are "Panettone" (meaning big bread); "Pandoro" (golden bread); "Panforte" (strong bread); and "Torrone". The first is made with a leavened sweet dough and is filled with raisins, currents, and candied fruit. In the dough of the second there is a lot of butter which gives to it its peculiar golden appearance. Both were originally made in the North - "Panettone” in Milan and "Pandoro" in Verona (home of Romeo and Juliet). From Siena, instead, come "Panforte" and other small oval-shaped sweets called "Ricciarelli". The base of the former is like a communion host; the dough is made of a mixture of gingerbread, honey, candied fruit, nuts, and spices (naturally, the last ones become the prevalent ingredient in the spicy version) and the surface is covered with a veil of powdered sugar. As one can guess it is very sweet, and because of this I recommend eating it in small portions or as an after-dinner dish. In this manner it lasts longer and one can fully savor this extraordinary dessert (of course, I would probably make the same recommendation for all the other desserts, but I think this is implied). The latter, conversely, are made of an almond-based dough and are covered with powdered sugar or chocolate. Last but not least is the "Torrone"(or almond-nougat), an elongated cake that can be very sweet. Made with a lot of sugar, almonds, nuts, pistachios, and honey, and also sold in the “fancy” versions with chocolate or with liquor, it is a cake of southern origin of which exist even smaller types (the size of a chocolate candy). Believe me, parting from all of them is such sweet sorrow.... No need to explain why dentists' and dieticians' clinics are full of patients soon after the holidays.

Speaking of which: only a few days ago my eyes fell on an article published in one of Italy’s main newspapers (Il Messaggero). Underlined in it was the recommendation that everyone try to stay away from all possible culinary temptations until December 23rd. Along with it came the following comforting information: according to dieticians, a 100-gram slice of “Pandoro” carries 434 calories and equals to a cheese sandwich and a plate of spaghetti with tomatoes and some cheese, while a 100-gram slice of “Panettone” carries 333 calories and equals to toasted bread with ham and a fruit juice or a portion of tortellini with tomato sauce. Worst of all is a 100-gram slice of nuts-covered-and-filled “Panettone”: with its 600 calories it equals to an entire Pizza Margherita (the most famous of all Italian pizzas, featured by basilico leaves, mozzarella cheese and tomatoes) or to three sausages! I suppose that relieved by such indispensable news we will do without the rest of foodstuff altogether and will limit ourselves to meals composed as follows:

(for breakfast) a slice of “Pandoro”(which satisfies the four-hundred calory requirement for this type of meal);

(for lunch) some samples of different types of “Torroni” or other cakes, bathed by some drops of the wines or of the “Spumanti” used for the celebrations of the Eve and of Christmas;

(for supper) (just to keep your food intake as light as possible) only one slice of “Panettone”(which by the way is quite complete, including as it does candied fruit and raisins).

P.S.: soon after Xmas, comments on and exposition of personal experience, feelings, and results of this diet will be more than welcome.


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This years’ Christmas will have the special flavor of things that happen only once in a lifetime. Everything will be centered on the nearing of the new millennium, an event which, far from being celebrated only with luxurious gifts and pretentiousness, will instead take on a more meditative tone. Thus, the focus of this year’s Italian Christmas will be the meditation on the preciousness of life and of spirit.

In 1997 an earthquake destroyed the region of Umbria and especially the awe-inspiring Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi. In spite of its destructiveness, however, this event has left no mark – except perhaps in the memory of those who feared that the reconstruction of the Basilica would have never been completed. Human will is capable of endless feats and has performed one of its innumerable miracles: the immediate restoration of the ceiling and of Cimabue’s frescoes. The efforts have been amazing and particularly moving; in other cases the destruction caused by an earthquake would have taken billions of lire and decades to be remedied, but here “the Utopia” or “the Dream”, as people have denominated the enterprise, has obtained the best results and has turned dreams into reality. Visitors will therefore be able to appreciate again all the magnificence of the Upper Basilica and will find a source of spiritual joy and of renewed hope in the concerts and religious services that will be particularly numerous this coming Christmas.

Finally, the upcoming Jubilee will encourage the Christian world to find further meanings in spirituality. The event, which will start on Christmas Eve when Pope John Paul II opens the Holy Door at St. Peter’s Basilica letting in millions of faithful, will end on January 6th 2001.

For this Christmas a different type of warmth will therefore fill up our hearts. Whether it is the hope for a more profound spirituality or the deep-felt need for a more intense relationship with the rest of mankind, these celebrations and this atmosphere will certainly leave us with a sense of enrichment.

Maria Lamkin can be reached at lamkin@uni.net