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.