If you’re as fascinated by Christmas traditions as I am, you can’t miss out on Italy. Of course, many of us would love to spend our Christmas vacation in Rome, but failing that, you can at least adopt a few Italian Christmas customs to share with your family. Here are 4 Christmas traditions unique to Italian culture that provide thoughtful insights into Christmas origin and history.
Send in the Fifers!
Italian Christmas traditions have two origins. They are the commonly known ones originating from Christian festivities and leftover Pagan celebrations. While the Christian holiday celebrates the birth of Christ, the Pagan tradition honors the god Saturn. That’s why the Italian word for Christmas, Natale, literally means birth. The dual celebration commemorates the birth of sun and son at the same time.
And what better way to celebrate the occasion than with pipers? This is one of Italy’s most beautiful (and, unfortunately, disappearing) Christmas traditions. Bagpipers descend from the mountains to ring in the season of birth and celebration.
The Italians have a number of special Christmas traditions, including those that involve Christmas Eve. Italy is known as the art capital of the world, so it is appropriate that Christmas Eve revolves around beautiful and elaborate manger scenes. Italian holiday-makers take the basic nativity scene and add the most unbelievable effects: trees, lakes, lights, angels, and many other astonishing details.
Although many homes set up their own, the most impressive nativity scenes are saved for local churches. It has become a much-beloved tradition to visit the churches on Christmas Eve and become immersed in the artistic displays.
We’ve all heard of Santa Claus, Pere Noel, Father Christmas, and St. Nicholas — but Italy has one of the more unique Christmas traditions: a female Santa Claus was known as La Befana.
Christian legend has it that La Befana was consulted by three kings, or astrologers, as to how to find the Christ Child. She provided them shelter since she was known to have the most pleasant home in the village. They invited her to join them on the journey to find the baby Jesus, but she declined, stating she was too busy with her housework.
Later, La Befana changed her mind and tried to find the kings or astrologers, and the baby they were seeking. She was unable to find them, so the lore says, “to this day, La Befana is searching for the Christ child. She leaves all the good children toys and candy, while the bad children get coal.”
The Yule Log
Like many other places, the Italian story of the Yule log tells that it must continue burning throughout the twelve days of Christmas. Both Pagan and Christian traditions take things a step further, however, the Pagan legends tell that the power of the fire burns away the old year and its evils, while Christian legends say that the Virgin Mary will enter the home of the Godly and humble while they’re away at Midnight mass, warming her newborn baby over their hearth.
The Merry Christmas traditions of Italy are not only a beautiful and unique blend of new and old, but they are also a great source of inspiration to families around the world.