Lucky Italian children have yet to open their christmas gifts.

In the UK many people are now returning to week and Epiphany passes without too much excitement however in Italy it seems that the children will be awaiting eagerly now for their presents on 6th January.  I hope they enjoy them.

Christmas is one of the biggest holidays celebrated the world over. Know how the Holy  Season is traditionally observed in Italy : In Italy, the Christmas season goes for three weeks, starting 8 days  before Christmas known as the Novena and lasts till after the Feast of Epiphany.

Italian Christmas traditions are based  heavily on the religion of Christianity. The opening of the Holy Season is  announced by the sound of cannon firing from the Castle of Saint Angelo in Rome.  Eight days before Christmas, a special service of prayers and church worship  begin which ends on Christmas Day. This special service is known as the Novena,  a Roman Catholic worship service consisting of prayers on nine consecutive  days.

A week before Christmas, poor children  dress up as shepherds complete with sandals, leggings tied with crossing thongs  and shepherds’ hats. Then they go from house to house reciting Christmas poems,  singing Christmas songs and playing them on flutes (shepherds’ pipes) as well.  In return for such acts, they are given get  money to buy presents and treats for the occassion. In some parts of the country(such as in cities like Rome),  real shepherds carry out the performance.

The Nativity scene is one of the most  beloved and enduring symbols of the Christmas season. Creating the Nativity  scene during Christmas actually originated in Italy and is now a popular custom  not only in Italy but also in many other parts of the world. Legend has it that,  St. Francis of Assisi once asked Giovanni Vellita, a villager of Greccio, to  create a manger scene. Giovanni made a very  beautiful Nativity scene and before  this St. Francis performed a mass. Thereafter, the creation of the figures or  pastori became a very popular genre of folk art.

On the 8th of December, the day of the Immacolata, is observed a tradition to  set up the “Presepio” (Crib) and the Christmas  tree. The Presepio (manger or crib) represents, by means of small  statues(usually hand-carved and finely detailed in features and dress), scenes  regarding Jesus’ birth with the Holy Family and the baby Jesus in the stable.  These scenes are often set out in triangular shapes. The Presepio is the center  of Christmas celebrations for families. By twilight, candles are lighted around  the family crib known as the Presepio, prayers are said, and children recite  poems. Guests kneel before the crib and musicians sing before it. The tree is a  fir, real or fake, decorated with colored  balls and multicolored lights. Both the “Presepio” and the tree are put away in  the evening of next year on January 6th.

A strict fast is observed a day before Christmas and ends 24 hours later with  an elaborate celebratory Christmas feast. While the Christmas  Eve dinner excludes meat items and is based mainly on fish, it is  permissible to eat meat on Christmas Day. Though the menu varies from region to  region, the first course of a Christmas feast is either a Lasagna, Cannelloni or  a timbale of pasta. Mixed roast or roast beef form the main item for the second  course. These are served with various types of cheeses, fruits(dried and  otherwise) and lots of sweets, all soaked in a good quality red or white wine.  Grappa, Whiskey and other hard liquors are also served during the feast. The  Torrone, the most typical of the Christmas sweets, its available with honey or  chocolate almonds or pistachios. The Christmas  cake eaten is of a light Milanese variety known as “Panettone” and  contains raisins and candied fruits. Another famous cake is “Pandoro” a soft  golden colored variety which originated in Verona. Chocolate also features in  the menu. At noon on Christmas Day the pope gives his blessing to crowds  gathered in the huge Vatican square. For Christmas lunch is served “Tortellini  in Brodo” – filled pasta parcels in broth. In central Italy is also served  “Cappone” – boiled capon. A special New Year Banquet is arranged on December  31st with raisin bread, turkey, chicken, rabbit, and spaghetti being the main  items on the menu. Champagne is the drink of the evening.

During Christmas, small presents are drawn from a container known as the “Urn  of Fate”. In this lucky dip, there is always one gift per person. But the main  exchange of gifts takes place on January 6, the feast of the Epiphany, the  celebration in remembrance of the Magi’s visit to the baby Jesus. In Italy the  children wait until Epiphany for their presents and hang up their stockings on  January 6. They anxiously await a visit from “La Befana”. According to the “La  Befana” legend, while on their way to Bethlehem to visit the baby Jesus, the  three wise men stopped during their journey and asked an old woman for  directions. They also told her of Jesus’ birth and asked her to join them. She  refused them and they continued on their way.  Later a shepherd asked her to  join him in paying respect to the Baby Jesus and Befana refused again. Within a  few hours the woman had a change of heart and wished she had gone to visit the  Christ child. She arrived at the stable where Jesus was but could not find him as Joseph and Mary had long departed to escape execution by the King Herod who  wanted to kill Christ. In Italian folklore, she is called Befana and depicted  variously as a fairy queen, a crone, or an ugly witch on a broomstick. Befana is  said to be flying around ever since, looking for the Christ Child each year and  leaving presents at every house with children in case he is there. She slides  down chimneys, and fills stockings and shoes with good  gifts for good children and pieces of charcoal for the bad ones. In this,  “Befana” may be said to be the Italian equivalent of Father Christmas or Santa  Claus


Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Oranges.

Over thirty years ago I went to Jerusalem during late November and at this time of year it is always the place I think of.  Attached to this is memory is the smell and taste of ripe bright oranges and clementines and their beautiful green leaves.  I always buy Orange and clementines at this time of the year with leaves on as a reminder of my visit to Jesus’s birth place.

What did strike me was how closely all the different religious groups live together. At the time the most popular sales for us tourists were nativity sets (I still have mine and put it out every 13th December to 6th January) made of olive wood from the Mount of Olives.

Bethlehem is the town where Jesus Christ is said to have been born. I visited the place which is marked as his birth place and remember my surprise at how small the entrance to the church was.

Find out more about Bethlehem below.

Here, Christmas Day is observed not  on a particular day. Bethlehem consists of people of different Christian  denominations – Catholics, Protestants, Greek Orthodoxes, Ethiopians, Armenians and more. While Roman Catholics and Protestants celebrate Christmas Day on  December 25, Greek, Syrian and other Orthodox Christians observe it on 6th January. For Armenian  Christians, Christmas Day is on January 18. Hence, Bethlehem witnesses longer Christmas celebrations than many other  places.

In Bethlehem, Roman Catholic services begin on December 24 and take place in  St. Catherine’s Church , a Catholic church adjacent to the Orthodox Basilica of  the Nativity. Protestants hold their services in a different way. While some of  them may attend special Christmas services in their local churches, others may  arrange excursions for special services in the Shepherd’s Fields or the Church  of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Some of the popular Jerusalem chuches such as The  Anglican Cathedral of St. George, the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer and the  YMCA organize travel to Bethlehem for  Christmas Eve celebrations. Orthodox Christians(Greek Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox,  Coptic Orthodox, Romanian Orthodox and others) celebrate the birth of Jesus by taking out numerous religious  processions and holding special services mainly at the Basilica of the Nativity.  Most Armenian Christmas services are also held in the Basilica, albeit a little  later, on January 18. The Christmas processions usually pass through Manger Square, believed to be situated on the traditional site of Jesus’ birth.

The general Christmas traditions in Bethlehem are similar  to the Europeans and North American customs observed during the festival. From a few  days before 25th December, the town is decorated with flags and other items of adornment. Streets  are strung with Christmas lights. A Christmas market comes up and Christmas plays  are performed. A cross is painted on the doors of every Christian home and Nativity scenes are displayed in every  household.

On Christmas Eve, annual Christmas processions are taken out. Residents of  the town as well as tourists crowd the doorways and the roof of the Basilica to  get a view of the parade. Galloping horsemen and police mounted on Arabian  horses lead the procession. The procession is led by galloping horsemen and  police mounted over Arabian horses; followed by a man riding over a black steed  and carrying a cross. After him comes the churchmen and government officials.  The procession quitely enters the doors and puts an ancient effigy of the Holy  Child in the Church. The visitors are then taken through deep winding stairs  leading to a grotto where a silver star marks the site of the birth of  Jesus.

With thanks to