How Italians Celebrate Christmas: Religion, Traditions, and Food

A Catholic Nation

Buon Natale! — Merry Christmas!

Jesus was born in Bethlehem, in the Spring… but Christmas was born in Italy! After Christianity had become the religion of the Roman Empire, in an effort to syncretize — and Christianize — the Saturnalia (feasts and other revelries associated with the winter solstice), the birthdate of Jesus was shifted to the 25th of December. For the past millennium or so, the pope has blessed the crowds in Vatican Square from his balcony on Christmas Day.

Today, Italians celebrate Christmas beginning on the 17th of December. For the period from the 17th to the 25th, called the Novena, children go door to door singing and reciting verses. Although it resembles the practice of children in other Catholic societies who are travel in imitation of Mary and Joseph looking for a place to stay, Italian children travel in imitation of the shepherds, seeking to adore the Christ child. Thus, for Italian believers, the presepio, or nativity scene, is an important reminder of the annunciation and declaration of the angels that Christ had been born. They place themselves, figuratively, in the company of the shepherds, not in the personae of Mary and Joseph.

During the Novena, Italian children write letters, not to Santa (or even to Befana–more on her below), but to their parents, promising to behave better. After the letters are read, aloud, at dinner, they go up in smoke in the fireplace while the children chant or sing to Befana, asking her to give them gifts of food.

Rather than Santa or even the Three Kings, so common in other Latin countries, most Italian children await the arrival of Befana. Legend has it that she was a witch. She was invited by the Three Kings to go with them and adore the Christ Child but said she was too busy to go. They continued on their way, and after she finished working, she set off to find them, and the Christ Child, but got lost. So she started giving gifts to every child she saw — and continues to do so today. Italian children leave their shoes by the fireplace hoping that Befana will come down the chimney on a broomstick and leave them presents. But Christmas is generous to children, especially Italian children, it seems. They can also expect some gifts on Christmas morning from Bambino Gesù (the Christ Child) or Babbo Natale — Father Christmas.

Some foods that one may find on an Italian dinner table are baked eel (as big as four feet long!), chestnut-stuffed chicken or capon, pasta (of course, in all its varieties) and panettone, a raisin bread flavored with citron.