The thought of Christmas brings several images to mind: brightly lit and decorated trees, colorfully-wrapped presents, a wreath hung on the door, possibly a manger scene. For Catholics in Italy, however, another image is first and foremost and that is the Nativity crib scene.
The Nativity Scene
The Nativity crib scene was started by St. Francis of Assisi in 1223. St. Francis visited Bethlehem in 1222 to see the place where it is believed that Jesus was born. He felt that recreating this scene would help to tell the story of Christmas. And it certainly does, even in America! The baby Jesus’ crib was traditionally put out on December 8, Immaculate Conception day (the day that the archangel, Gabriel, brought the news to Mary that she was carrying the baby Jesus). The baby Jesus was not put into the crib until Midnight on December 24 to signify his birth.
In American, Nativity scenes are fairly simple with Joseph, Mary, Jesus, the Three Kings and a few animals. The Nativity scenes displayed in Italy, however, can be very elaborate consisting of several tiers of shelves, usually in the shape of a pyramid, colored paper, gold-covered pinecones and small candles. Some even contain fruit, candy, and presents! Nativity scenes in Naples also include every-day items and objects and even famous people and politicians.
Italian Christmas Traditions
Italian customs such as caroling, the hanging of a stocking, the exchanging of gifts and attending midnight mass are common in many countries. But Italy maintains many of its own traditions, like the bagpipers playing in the streets, and skiers skiing down the slopes with lit torches to welcome Christmas!
Other Italian traditions include the holiday continuing into December 26 with the national holiday of Santo Stefano where families reconvene to finish the Christmas leftovers. And it doesn’t end there, families continuing the celebration until January 6, which marks The Epiphany, or when the Three Kings visited the baby Jesus and brought him gifts.
Most Italians open gifts on Christmas day after lunch, however, some may open them as early as December 13, while others might wait until January 6!