An Italian Christmas way of life

As Christmas is approaching, bringing with it that typical freezing air and covering with snow almost every European country, people are beginning to be less interested in working, their minds gradually beginning to tune in “holiday mood”.

We start checking the calendar to see how much time we have left to buy presents and we browse on the Internet to find some nice recipes to propose to those we’ll invite at our big Christmas dinner/lunch.

Christmas it the one period of the year that Italians do worship, but sometimes people celebrate Christmas without even knowing what they are actually celebrating for or with. A lot of Italian traditions are unknown to the very Italian people and believe me, for a long time they were a mystery to me too.

Don’t you panic, read this article and you will be an expert in Italy’s most famous Christmas traditions.

First of all, there is the presepe(or nativity scene), the one Christmas thing, along with panettone, Italy is world widely famous for. The word presepe originates from the latin word “praesepium”, meaning “manger”.  It is on a cold night, in 1223, that S. Francis from Assisi put into scene the first living representation of the Nativity, even though his version of the presepe was not the one we know today: it was simply composed by a manger, a donkey and a steer, but the child Jesus, S. Joseph and the Virgin Mary were still missing.

Panettone_veroThe second famous Italian Christmas traditions are panettone – originally called “panaton” or “panatton” in Lombard language – and pandoro. The panettone, invented in Milan in the early20th century, is a type of sweet loaf bread filled with raisin and candied fruits. It has cupola shape and it’s usually 30 cm tall, even though you can find it in different versions, like the famous shorter and larger piedmontese Galup. Often, when you’re not sure what to buy someone for Christmas, you will choose a panettone – which in Italy sometimes could be worse than choosing a present – and if you’re luckly to encounter her/his tastes well done. Otherwise this person will simply give the panettone as a present to someone else and so on until it finally gets eaten by somebody.

The pandoro, on the other hand, is a typical venetian yeast bread, shaped like a frustum with an 8 pointed-star section. Usually dusted with vanilla scented sugar, it’s a common modern tradition to remove its soft interior in order to fill the pandoro with vanilla ice cream or Chantilly cream. Some people, especially Piedmontese, also use to slice pandoro and pour hot zabaglione or hot Nutella  on it.

Last, but not least, the “Befana”, which according to the Italian folklore, is an old woman who delivers candy and presents to good children and a lump of coal to bad children, filling the stockings they hung on Epiphany Eve. Epiphany – ἐπιφάνεια in Greek – means “demonstration, event, divine appearance” and with it Christians commemorate Jesus’ first divine demonstration to the Three Kings (Magi). According to the legend, the Three Kings, on their way to Bethlems’s barn, asked directions to an old lady. Despite their attempt to convince her to follow them and pay a visit to child Jesus, she refused. After a while she regretted her choice, prepared a basket of sweets as a gift and went out looking for them, in vain. So she started knocking on every nearby door, giving her sweets to every single child, hoping that he would be Jesus. There is a very common nursery rhyme about her which everyone is being taught:


La Befana vien di notte               
Con le scarpe tutte rotte
Col vestito alla romana
Viva, Viva La Befana!   



The Befana comes by night
With her shoes all tattered and torn
She comes dressed in the Roman way
Long life to the Befana!

Now you know a little bit more about Italian Christmas traditions.

Be good, so you don’t receive coal, and enjoy your Christmas holidays!

You might also like: