Part of the magic of Christmas is the melding of a multitude
of traditions, ancient to modern, to honor the birth of Christ on December
Christmas, as it is celebrated in Italy, has two
origins: the familiar traditions of Christianity blended with the pagan
traditions predating the Christmas era. The greatest feast of the ancient
Roman Empire, "Saturnalia" (a winter solstice celebration), just happens
to coincide with the Christmas celebrations of the Advent. Consequently,
Christmas fairs, merry-making and torch processions, honor not only the
birth of Christ, but also the birth of the "Unconquered Sun." "Natale,"
the Italian word for Christmas, is literally the translation for
A delightful, but
rapidly disappearing tradition in Italy, is the ushering in of the coming
festivities by the "Piferari" or
They descend from the mountains of the Abruzzo and Latium playing inviting
and characteristic tunes on their bagpipes, filling the air with
anticipation for the joyous celebration to come.
Christmas Eve is a time for viewing Italy's
artistic and elaborate manger scenes or Cribs. They consist of figurines, in
clay or plaster , of the infant Jesus, Mary and Joseph. An ox and ass are
nearby because legend has it that they warmed the child with their breath.
It is around this basic focal point that individual artisans create their
own intricate landscapes. There may be grottoes, small trees, lakes, rivers,
the lights of "Bethlehem" in the background, angels hung from wires, and
occasionally, even local heroes. The most beautiful Cribs are set up in
churches. There is often a contest between churches of the same town for the
best Crib. People go from church to church to view and compare the Cribs and
Another tradition is the burning of the Yule
log, which must stay alight until New Year's Day. This, again, is an example
of pagan and Christian blending. The pagan belief explains the purifying and
revitalizing power of fire, and that with the burning log, the old year and
its evils are destroyed. Christian legend tells how the Virgin Mary enters
the homes of the humble at midnight while the people are away at Midnight
Mass and warms her newborn child before the blazing log.
Amidst the general merrymaking and religious
observance of Christmas Eve, Christmas tapers (long slender candles) are
lighted and a Christmas banquet is spread. In some places, Christmas Eve
dinner consists largely of fish. There may be as many as 10 t 20 fish dishes
prepared. In Rome, the traditional dish of Christmas Eve is "Capitone," a
big female eel, roasted, baked or fried. North of Rome a traditional dish
may be pork, sausage packed in a pig's leg, smothered in lentils, or turkey
stuffed with chestnuts.
Common throughout Italy are the Christmas
sweets: "panettone" (cake filled with candied fruit), "torrone" (nougat) and
"panforte" (gingerbread) made with hazelnuts, honey and almonds. All
Christmas sweets, as a rule, contain nuts and almonds. Peasant folklore
theorizes that to eat nuts favors the fertility of the earth and aids in the
increase of flocks and family. In ancient Rome, honey was offered at this
time of year so that the new year might be sweet.