One of the most important ways of celebrating Christmas in Italy is the Nativity crib scene. Using a crib to help tell the Christmas story was made very popular by St. Francis of Assisi in 1223 (Assisi is in mid-Italy). The previous year he had visited Bethlehem and saw where it was thought that Jesus was born. A lot of Italian families have a Nativity crib in their homes.
The city of Naples in Italy is world famous for its cribs and crib making. These are known as ‘Presepe Napoletano’ (meaning Neapolitan Cribs). The first crib scene in Naples is thought to go back to 1025 and was in the Church of S. Maria del presepe (Saint Mary of the Crib), this was even before St. Francis of Assisi had made cribs very popular!
Having cribs in your own home became popular in the 16th century and it’s still popular today (before that only churches and monasteries had cribs). Cribs are traditionally put out on the 8th December. But the figure of the baby Jesus isn’t put into the crib until the evening/night of December 24th!
Sometimes the Nativity scene is displayed in the shape of pyramid which can be meters tall! It’s made of several tiers of shelves and is decorated with colored paper, gold covered pinecones and small candles. A small star is often hung inside the top of the pyramid/triangle. The shelves above the manger scene might also contain fruit, candy and presents.
One special thing about Neapolitan cribs, is that they always have extra ‘every day’ people and objects (such as houses, waterfalls, food, animals and even figures of famous people and politicians!). Naples is also the home to the largest crib scene in the world, which has over 600 objects on it!
In Naples there is a still a street of nativity scene makers called the ‘Via San Gregorio Armeno’. In the street you can buy wonderful hand made crib decorations and figures – and of course whole cribs!
One old Italian custom is that children go out Carol singing and playing songs on shepherds pipes, wearing shepherds sandals and hats.
On Christmas Eve, it’s common that no meat (and also sometimes no dairy) is eaten. Often a light seafood meal is eaten and then people go to the Midnight Mass service. The types of fish and how they are served vary between different regions in Italy.
For many Italian-American families a big Christmas Eve meal of different fish dishes is now a very popular tradition! It’s known as The Feast of the Seven Fishes (‘Esta dei Sette Pesci’ in Italian). The feast seems to have its root in southern Italy and was bought over to the USA by Italian immigrants in the 1800s. It now seems more popular in American than it is in Italy!
Common types of fish eaten in the feast include Baccala (salted Cod), Clams, Calamari, Sardines and Eel.
There are different theories as to why there are seven fish dishes eaten. Some think that seven represents the seven days of creation in the Bible, other say it represents the seven holy sacraments of the Catholic Church. But some families have more than seven dishes! You might have nine (to represent the Christian trinity times three), 13 (to represent Jesus and his 12 disciples) or 11 (for the 11 disciples without Jesus or Judas!)!
The Christmas celebrations start eight days before Christmas with special ‘Novenas’ or a series of prayers and church services.
Some families have a ‘Ceppo’ or Yule Log which is burnt through the Christmas season.
In Italian Happy/Merry Christmas is ‘Buon Natale’, in Sicilian it’s ‘Bon Natali’ and in Ladin (spoken in some parts of the northern Italian region of South Tyrol) it’s ‘Bon/Bun Nadèl’. Happy/Merry Christmas in lots more languages.
Epiphany is also important in Italy. On Epiphany night, children believe that an old lady called ‘Befana’ brings presents for them. The story about Befana bringing presents is very similar to the story of Babushka. Children put stockings up by the fireplace for Befana to fill. In parts of northern Italy, the Three Kings might bring you present rather than Befana. On Christmas day ‘Babbo Natale’ (Santa Claus) might bring them some small gifts, but the main day for present giving is on Epiphany.