Italian Vocabulary: Christmas Traditions in Italy

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Updated 2018.

As an American che va matta per l’Italia (who is crazy for Italia) one of my new favorite holiday traditions is also a very old Italian custom: constructing a presepe (nativity scene). Every Italian presepe is unique, because it is created from scratch, and it is as individual as the person who builds it.

I received my “starter” presepe two years ago, when in early December much to my surprise and delight, a giant yellow box with Posta Italia stamped on the outside was left on my doorstep. It was a gift from my dear friend Vita Gentile, who lives in Puglia. Inside the box I found statues of the Madonna (Mary), Giuseppe /Joseph, Ge (baby Jesus), pastori (shepherds), angeli (angels), contadini (peasants), capre (goats), agnelli (lambs) and even a mucca (cow).

Also included in the box were sheets of arty papers, dried moss, tiny pebbles and miniature packages of straw. All I needed to add were a couple of ordinary cardboard boxes to create the base structure for my pastoral scene. Over these I artistically crumpled and draped paper, scattered the straw and moss and then strategically placed the statues…and presto…I had made my first presepe! For fun I add as a back drop, one of my own paintings of an Italian landscape.

I asked my friend Vita to tell me all about her own Christmas traditions and those of typical Italians:

Among the Italian Christmas traditions and legends, the presepe and the presepe vivente (living presepe) come to mind first. It is quite traditional in Italy for each family to construct a presepe and place it near the Christmas tree. For me it does not feel like Christmas until the presepe has been built. The presepe vivente is also quite popular. It is a theatrical representation which recreates the atmosphere and the drama of the first nativity.

Each year in Alberobello, near my home in Puglia, there is a presepe vivente in which participants walk through il bosco (the forest) with lighted candles and listen to stories performed by actors in little groves. Included in these performances are live animals, as they too were a part of the first Christmas. This reminds me of an interesting Leggenda di Natale (Christmas legend) that fantastically claims that the magic of the first nativity enables the animals in the manger to talk on Christmas Eve. For this reason it is said that on Christmas Eve the farmers take extra care with their livestock, giving them more food to eat than usual, to avoid them talking poorly about them during the night!

In preparation for Christmas, Italian school children make un lavoretto di Natale (a small Christmas decoration) that is given to their families on December 25th. The present is also accompanied by a poem that we kids memorize and recite for our family at the Christmas dinner. Schools organize special recitals and churches hold canti nelle chiese (choir performances) and provide many opportunities to help the needy by fare volontariato (volunteering). The streets in our towns and villages are decorated and there are lucine colorate ovunque (colored lights everywhere).

In our homes there are also sparkling lights on l’albero di Natale (Christmas tree). Sometimes we also decorate the tree with cookies. The weather in Puglia in December fa freddo (is very cold), but I don’t mind because I love le cioccolate calde (hot chocolate) that I drink next to the warm fireplace or in the bars with un bel gruppo di amici (a great group of friends).

On Christmas Eve we celebrate by cooking a pranzo Natalizio (large holiday luncheon) that consists only of fish, as one does not eat meat the day before Christmas. My grandmother often prepares il Baccalà (cod). At night we go to la Messa (mass) and when we return we light a great big Ceppo di Natale (spruce log) in the fireplace to make the house warm and inviting for the arrival of baby Gesù.

On Christmas day (il giorno di Natale), like other children in other countries, we welcome Babbo Natale (Santa Claus) by leaving him cookies and milk near the fireplace. In the morning we unwrap gifts, welcome friends and we eat for hours! It is only on Christmas Day that we place the statue of Gesù into the presepe…after all that was the day he is born and it wouldn’t be right to put him into the nativity scene beforehand.

A Capodanno (New Year’s Day) we prepare lenticchie (lentils) because they look like little coins and we eat panettone with l’uva (grapes) because they are symbols of wealth and prosperity. We also eat Pandoro, which is a golden cake made with a powdery sugar frosting. There are many superstitions that surround the first day of the new year, such as you must make loud noises: si rompono i piatti (break plates) or set off fuochi artificiali (fireworks) to cacciare l’anno vecchio (scare away the old year).

As we wait for the New Year we play games of tombola (Italian bingo) with family and friends and at the stroke of midnight with goblets of champagne we toast each other and exchange gli auguri di capodanno (best wishes for the new year). But the celebration doesn’t end there! My uncles set up i fuochi pirotecnici (a fireworks display) and we all watch with stelle filanti in mano (streamers in our hands).

Finally, we conclude the holiday season on the 6th of January with la festa dell’Epifania or la Befana (Epiphany). On this day, according to legend i Re Magi (the Three Wise Men) found the baby Jesus in the manager after being guidati dalla stella cometa (guided by the star of Bethelhem). Italian children celebrate by hanging le calze (stockings) on the fireplace in preparation for la Befana (the good witch) to come down the chimney and fill them.

There are fruits and chocolates for the good children and coal for the bad ones. The story of la Befana goes like this: La Befana was a cranky old woman who was too busy cleaning her house with her broom to offer food or comfort to wise men when they came knocking on her door on their way find the baby Jesus. After they went away, she felt so guilty that she went from house to house giving gifts to all the children hoping to compensate for her bad behavior. Every year, when I was small girl, a neighbor would dress up like la Befana and come to our house to give us kids small gifts. She would wear old clothes, carry a broom and have mud on her boots. Beneath the scarf she wore on her head you could see that she had a hairy chin and nose. Despite her scary appearance, we all knew she was also a good & kind lady and we always looked forward to her visit.

La Befana is the local legend, but we never forget that on January 6th the kings arrived to pay homage to the baby Gesù with oro (gold), incenso (incense) and mirra (mir). It is on the day of the Epiphany that finalmente il presepe è completo (the presepe is finally complete). Until this day, the statues of the kings have been placed around the house, slowly advancing toward the presepe. On January 6th the three kings take their place in the nativity scene next to the baby, to praise and rejoice the birth of the Christ child. Each year as we arrange the statues in the presepe we are reminded that there is no journey too difficult to reach loved ones or to give a gift that comes from the heart.

Thanks to my friend Vita for gifting us with her holiday stories. Buon Natale tutti! (Happy Christmas everyone!) May you have a wonderful holiday season and incorporate the spirit of the Italian presepe into your holiday traditions.

— Melissa Muldoon

Melissa Muldoon writes the Italian language blog, Diario di una Studentessa Matta. She studied painting and art history in Florence and is a graphic designer/illustrator in in the San Francisco Bay area. 

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