In a nation whose very flag bears the colours of Christmas – red, white, and green – it is not surprising to find that Christmas is observed with great reverence as well as great fanfare. As over 80 percent of Italy’s 60 million people identify as Roman Catholic, it also not surprising to find Christmas kept in a traditionally “Catholic way.” Yet, there are also many unique aspects of the Italian Christmas season, which runs from December 8th, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, until January 6th, the date of Epiphany, when the Three Wise Men are thought to have visited the baby Jesus.
In Italy, churches hold special masses called “Novenas” during the eight days leading up to Christmas Day. These services include both prayer and teaching sessions, which are meant to ready the minds and hearts of attendees for the Christmas season. As Christmas approaches, lights, Christmas trees, and other decorations begin to appear at marketplaces, malls, shops, homes, and along major streets.
The most important decorations, however, are the presepios (nativity scenes), which can be seen in churches, piazzas (plazas), and other public areas. Straw, cribs, and statues of Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, peasants, and much more will be in the manger. Baby Jesus, however, will not show up in his crib until late on Christmas Eve. Some presepios are built in the shape of a pyramid with stair-step shelves on which figurines are placed. Coloured paper, gold-covered pine cones, miniature candles, and a star on top of the pyramid are often part of the decor. You may also see presents, candies, and fruits included.
A meatless dinner is traditionally eaten on Christmas Eve, frequently including fish or other seafood, after which the faithful make their way to midnight mass. There, they may see a living nativity scene with actors and live animals, and they will welcome Christmas Morning with great jubilation. After mass, many will return home to treat themselves to a slice of “Panettone” (Italian Christmas bread), which is a very dry and very “fruity” sponge cake. To counteract the dryness, a cup of hot cocoa or other drink may accompany it. On Christmas Day, a larger dinner that includes meat dishes is usually eaten, finally breaking the fasting period of Lent.
Other Italian Christmas traditions include: children caroling and making music with pipes while dressed up in shepherds’ clothes, having bonfires on Christmas Eve in the town square, and burning a “Yule log” continuously throughout the whole Christmas season.
Things to do
Some things to do if travelling in Italy around this time of year include:
- Visit Naples to see its famous “Neapolitan cribs.” Naples is famous for its nativity crib industry, and the tradition extends back to the 11th Century A.D. You will see full presepios set up in Naples as well, with numerous characters included, including of famous people not otherwise associated with Christmas. You may also catch a glimpse of the largest presepio in the world, which has over 600 figurines. You can also shop the Via San Gregorio Armeno and its numerous nativity crib shops.
- See Rome decked out for the holidays. Rome will be decorated with gigantic Christmas trees, a host of presepios, and lights displays. You can also visit the busy Christmas markets for your Yuletide shopping. Since Vatican City is right in the middle of Rome, you may wish to stop by for midnight mass held by the Pope right inside St. Peter’s Basilica. Those who cannot get a front row seat can still watch on a large screen out in the nearby square.
If in Italy for the Yuletide, be sure to enjoy the many, long-cherished Christmas traditions, and be sure to wish everyone a “Buon Natale!” (Merry Christmas!)
Christmas is a Christian holiday commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ. It is celebrated every year on December 25 with the exception of some Eastern churches which use the older Julian calendar. Nowadays Christmas is also celebrated by a large number of non-Christian people around the world as a cultural event. In many countries it is a public holiday. As of 1870 Christmas is observed in the United States as a federal holiday.
A period of waiting and preparation before Christmas is called the "Advent Season". In most churches it starts on the fourth Sunday before Christmas.
Customs and traditions
Due to its long history and the enormous popularity there are countless customs and traditions associated with Christmas. Some of them are well-known throughout the world, while the other are limited to specific countries and regions. The most popular involve Christmas Tree and special decorations like Advent wreaths, mistletoe, representations of Nativity scene and colorful lights. Family gatherings, special meals, singing Christmas carols and gift-giving are also an inseparable part of Christmas. And we cannot forget about the figure of Santa Claus who brings gifts to the well-behaved children on Christmas Eve.
Bible does not mention a specific date for Jesus' birth . Most historians believe he was born in the spring, hence the description of shepherds herding animals. The date of December 25 for the Feast of the Nativity was set by the Western Christian Church (Pope Julius I) by the early-to-mid 4th century. It coincided with the pagan celebrations of the birthday of Mithra in the Roman cult of Mithraism. The date of December 25 is also close to the date of winter solstice which was celebrated in many European pagan cultures.
Modern Christmas tree tradition can be traced back to 16th-century Germany with the first documented Christmas tree found on the sculpture of a private home in Alsace (then part of Germany, today France), dating 1576 . In the United States, the first Christmas trees appeared in Strasbourg (Pennsylvania) in the 17th century with the arrival of German immigrants. The custom spread across the country in the second half of 19th century .
Many people in the United States celebrate Christmas Day on December 25. The day celebrates Jesus Christ's birth. It is often combined with customs from pre-Christian winter celebrations. Many people erect Christmas trees, decorate their homes, visit family or friends and exchange gifts.
What Do People Do?
People celebrate Christmas Day in many ways. In the days or even weeks before Christmas Day, many people decorate their homes and gardens with lights, Christmas trees and much more. It is common to organize a special meal, often consisting of turkey and a lot of other festive foods, for family or friends and exchange gifts with them. Children, in particular, often receive a lot of gifts from their parents and other relatives and the mythical figure Santa Claus. This has led to Christmas Day becoming an increasingly commercialized holiday, with a lot of families spending a large part of their income on gifts and food.
Many Sunday schools, churches and communities organize special events. These can include decorating the neighborhood or a shopping mall, putting up a Christmas tree and planning a Nativity display, concert or performance. A lot of plays and songs have a aspect of Christmas as a theme. Some groups arrange meals, shelter or charitable projects for people without a home or with very little money.
Government offices, organizations, businesses and schools are closed, almost without exception. Many people visit relatives or friends and are out of town. This may cause congestion on highways and at airports. Public transit systems do not run on their regular schedules. In general, public life closes down completely.
The original meaning of Christmas is a special church service, or mass, to celebrate the birth of Christ. The story of the Nativity, or the events surrounding the birth of Jesus, are particularly important in religious celebrations of Christmas. However, many traditions that are around today have their roots in pre-Christian winter festivals. These include the importance of candles and decorations made from evergreen bushes and tree, symbolizing everlasting light and life.
In Roman times, a mid-winter festival was held. This was a relaxing time with a lot of parties and merry making. It was also common to give other people small gifts, such as dolls for children and candles for adults. This festival culminated with the celebration of the winter solstice, which fell on December 25 in the Roman calendar. In Scandinavia, a festival called Yule and lasting up to twelve days was held in late December and early January. In this time people burnt logs and held parties. These customs have influences how Christmas Day is celebrated today in the United States.
The Bible does not give a precise date for the birth of Jesus. It is also unclear when December 25 became associated with the birth of Jesus, although it may have been around two hundred years after his birth. In the early centuries of Christianity, the anniversary of the birth of Jesus was not a cause for celebrations. The idea of turning this day into a celebration started in the early Middle Ages in Europe.
During Reformation and up until the middle of the 1800s, Christmas was often not celebrated because partying and merry making was seen as unchristian. From about 1840, celebrating Christmas became more widespread. December 25 was declared a federal holiday in the United States in 1870. Since then Christmas Day has become a steadily more important holiday.
A wide range of people and objects represent Christmas. These include baby Jesus, the Nativity and the Three Kings, but also Santa Claus, reindeer and elves. Common objects at this time of year are pine trees, holly, decorations, fairy lights, candles and presents. Christmas Day is now truly a mix of religious celebration and commercial interests.