CHIAVARI, Italy – Christmas in Italy is a very special time. Towns are full of sparkly lights, red poinsettia decorate shop windows and there is even a Christmas tree or two in the main piazza. This is a time of family, food, music and the wonder of miracles.
But pretty as the sparkly lights and poinsettia are, they are not what Christmas in Italy is about. It is about celebrating the birth of Christ. Most holidays in Italy center on church designated holy days, and some of them re-worked versions of pagan holidays celebrated by the ancient Romans. While Christmas isn’t a re-worked pagan holiday, back in the days of the Roman Empire the Romans did celebrate during the period we now think of as our Christmas season. Their holiday was called Saturnalia and it was celebrated from December 17th to the 24th. It was a whoopee-doo time of feasting, drinking and dancing in the streets, which the Italians still do but only in the spring during Carnival.
We may have lost Saturnalia, but not all of the old ways are lost. One really old tradition that still survives in some parts of Italy is the burning of a tree stump on Christmas Eve. At one time burning a tree stump was a clever way to convert an even older pagan tradition that symbolized the final ending of the old year by burning away whatever evil it had had in it. Out with the old and in with the new.
The head of the household would put a tree stump in the family fireplace, say a prayer, put a coin on the stump and set the whole business on fire. The youngest member of the family would then have to sing a song or recite a poem before being allowed to pick up the coin. The fire was usually left to burn while the family went to midnight mass, symbolically allowing the Virgin Mary to enter their home and warm the baby Jesus.
Another very old Christmas tradition is that of the zampognari (bagpipers). It too dates back to the ancient Romans. It is based on a legend of shepherds visiting the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem, and after seeing the baby Jesus, they took out their bagpipes and played. Still today, in remembrance of that moment, if pipers see a public nativity scene they will stop in front of it for a few minutes of quiet contemplation before they move on.
|Zampognari in Rome, Italy|
But perhaps the most famous of all Italian Christmas traditions is the nativity scene. The first manger, as we think of mangers today, was created by St. Francis of Assisi in 1223. He used real people and live animals so the illiterate in his congregation could understand the meaning of Christmas. The idea then morphed into using figurines.
During the holidays the Christian churches in Italy, as well as banks, post offices, train stations and other public buildings all have nativity scenes on display. There is hardly a building in Italy that does not have a nativity scene in its public space. Even kids work together to recreate a manger in the main entrances of their schools, ready to greet visiting parents and relatives.
In Saronno, the town near Milan where I lived in before moving to Chiavari, the merchants would have a contest every year to see who could make the best nativity scene using only the materials they sold or made. So if you were the owner of the local pasta shop, your nativity scene would be made of macaroni and sheets of lasagna dough and the baker may glue together some breadcrumbs to make a roof for his flour bag stable.
The mangers create a lot of excitement and in the days leading up to Christmas Italian families make it point to visit the churches in their town. Grandparents babysitting little ones will take them to church and as they stand in front of the manger they will tell them the story of Mary and Jesus. Even shoppers rushing around buying gifts for the holidays will often take a break and pop into the closest church to see its version of the baby Jesus and the stable in Bethlehem.
For Italians Christmas is a religious holiday much more than a gift giving holiday, for many gifts come later on January 5th, the eve of the Epiphany. I can still hear my father, who grew up in Italy, talking about how thrilled he used to be during the holidays to find an orange or some candies from the Befana – the good witch. Like Santa Claus she also flies from roof top to roof top bringing gifts, but instead of riding in a sleigh pulled by reindeer, she rides a broom, or sometimes a donkey. But however those oranges got to my father’s stocking, it must have been quite a trip getting up to that hill town of Piansano in northern Lazio in those early days of the 1900’s.
Many Italian Christmas traditions like gift bringing witches, bag-piping shepherds, mangers large and small and tree burning ceremonies are a mix of religious and popular customs that date back thousands of years. As the years have passed, each region has developed its own special way of celebrating Christmas that have a special meaning to the people who live there, but the focus is always on the importance of the holiday – the celebration of the birth of Christ.
It’s different in other parts of the world where a jolly old man, a guy with a simple one night mission, nine cute reindeer and a single catchy tune has just about wiped out the religious aspect of Christmas. The Italians don’t want it to happen here and complain about the foreign assault on their culture. If you think about it, even a Christmas tree in the piazza is a big concession to non-Italian Christmas traditions.
But traditions evolve and who knows if at some point in the future we’ll see pictures of old Santa twirling a forkful of spaghetti or spooning into a bowl of minestrone soup. Italians being Italians will certainly figure out some way to make him their own, part of the family – the most important element of Italian life, and I’m pretty sure that is one thing that will never change. Buon Natale tutti.