How to Celebrate an Italian Christmas

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In Italy, the Christmas season is so anticipated that the religious celebration begins early in December and continues throughout the month. Gifts are sometimes exchanged on December 25, but some families wait until Epiphany, a holiday celebrated on January 6, to formally exchange presents.

Things You'll Need

  • Christmas Gifts
  • Decorative Stationery
  • Nativity Scenes
  • Fish
  • Tortellini
  • Wines
  • Create a handmade "presepe," or Nativity scene, as elaborate as your family can afford to make it. This model of a manger is an important part of an Italian Christmas celebration, as the manger scene originated in Italy.

  • Plan for your family to meet in front of this Nativity scene each morning of novena (a nine-day religious period that begins on December 6) to recite prayers.

  • Build a "ceppo," the Italian version of the Christmas tree. Resembling a ladder, the ceppo is formed by linking two wooden sides with wooden shelves.

  • Decorate your ceppo by placing the presepe on the bottom shelf and gifts and decorations on other shelves.

  • Send your children out in your neighborhood to recite Christmas poems.

  • Plan to fast all day on Christmas Eve, and go to church if this is an important part of your Christmas celebration.

  • Break the fast with an elaborate Christmas Eve banquet, called the "pronzo delta vigilia." This meal, which contains no meat, should consist of foods such as fish and seafood soup or stew, cannoli (an Italian pastry) and other treats.

  • Remember that on Christmas Eve your children should provide you with a letter written on decorative stationery with their promises to behave during the coming year.

  • Prepare an elaborate Christmas Day meal for family and friends. Serve antipasti and pasta with walnut cream sauce; top it off with "panettone," or Christmas cake, and espresso.

  • Serve wine and "spumante" (Italian sparkling wine) in honor of this special day. Play "tombola" (bingo) or card games with your guests.

  • Plan to exchange gifts with your children on Christmas Day or on January 6 during the feast of Epiphany.

  • Remember the legend of the holiday, which is that La Befana (or Epiphany) was sweeping her floor when the three wise men came to her door and asked her to accompany them to Bethlehem. She declined in order to finish her task, but later had an epiphany of what she had missed, and since then is said to wander from door to door looking for the Christ Child.

  • Expect La Befana to arrive at your house bearing gifts for your children, if they have behaved especially well. Understand that she could come in the form of a fairy, a witch or a crone.

Tips & Warnings

  • Although there are typically no elaborate holiday decorations in Italy, you can expect to see the words "Buon Natale" displayed in shop windows, wishing people a good Christmas.
  • Some families in Italy have a Christmas tree, decorated as it would be in America.
  • Children in some areas of Italy believe that Jesus Christ delivers presents.
  • Italy is a country with many ethnic and cultural influences, so Christmas traditions are diverse and cannot be generalized. The preceding steps represent a few local traditions that may or may not be appropriate for your personal celebration of Christmas.

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