Well, it’s about that time of year again, and so I figured some seasonally relevant information would be appropriate this week, reexamining a few Italian and Italian-American holiday traditions. My team of crack researchers has been on the case for weeks now, working to come up with the very best content for this particular post. OK, well, the truth is that I don’t really have a “crack” team. Or any team at all, for that matter. It’s just me, Google, and a bottle of grappa. You’ll have to forgive me if I wander off topic now and then.
Christmas in Italy
One thing you notice in Italy is that the holiday season arrives later and with much less intensity than it does in the US. While not completely immune to commercialism, Italians are less enslaved by it than we Americans. Rather than commencing with the onslaught of annoying Christmas carols the day after Halloween, Italians ease into the season on December 8th with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Indeed, it’s worth mentioning that Christmas in Italy still very much revolves around religious traditions rather than unbridled consumerism, talking snowmen, mutant reindeer, and elves running amok in shopping malls.
Christmas decorations, lights, and trees are becoming more popular in Italy and the center of Rome is lit up beautifully this time of year. But the main focus of decorations continues to be the Nativity scenes or presepi. Almost every church has a presepio, and they are also found in the piazzas and public areas. If you want to really enjoy this holiday tradition, go check out the Museo del Presepio, which is located near Via Cavour and Via dei Fori Imperiali.
Museo del Presepio—Via Tor Dè Conti, 31/A
Eating with the Fishes
Then there is the so-called “Feast of the Seven Fishes,” which is the traditional Christmas Eve dinner in many Italian-American households. However it is not really a known tradition in many parts of Italy, despite the claims that it began in the Southern regions of the Old Country. In fact, one theory suggests that the Feast started with the first Southern-Italian immigrants to America. The original Italian tradition of observing a meatless Christmas Eve dinner was expanded upon by these immigrants who wanted to celebrate the prosperity they had found in the New World with a more elaborate meal, indulging in the seafood bounty that they could now afford.
The significance of the number seven is said to be derived from the number of Sacraments in the Roman Catholic Church. There is also a certain numerical perfection associated with the number seven and it happens to be the number most often cited in the Bible. Others think it could come from “the seven days to create the world,” “the seven hills of Rome,” or “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” (This last one is my own contribution to the historical debate. It seems that the grappa is starting to kick in already.)
In any case, the number can vary according to regions and even from family to family. Some families celebrate with 9, 11 or 13 seafood dishes, denoting other numbers of biblical significance. Personally I think most nonne (grandmas) just prepare the meal as they like, count the dishes when they’re finished, and then invent some cockamamie story to go along with it.
Last year I was in Sicily with my girlfriend’s (now wife’s) family. For Christmas Eve we celebrated “The Feast of Twelve Alien Sea Creatures Scraped Off the Ocean Floor.” In other words, there was no set menu; it was made up from whatever was alive and squirming at the local market that particular day. Some of these dishes looked like they came from a lost episode of Jacques Cousteau. I took a semester of Marine Biology in college and I swear that one or two of the species that I ate for Christmas Eve dinner last year have not yet found their way into the text books.
But once again I’m getting off topic and once again I blame the grappa. The fact is that there was so much food, you couldn’t even count the number of dishes (I mean fishes)—much less eat them all. So the number is beside the point. The point is that…wait, what exactly is the point? Never mind, let’s move on…
Here is the Italian calendar for the Holiday Season that I stole from about.com (my “research team” is lazy, not to mention half-drunk by now):
December 8: L’Immacolata Concezione – celebration of the Immaculate Conception
December 13: La Festa di Santa Lucia – St. Lucy’s Day
December 24: La Vigilia di Natale – Christmas Eve
December 25: Natale – Christmas Day
December 26: La Festa di Santo Stefano – St. Stephen’s Day marks the announcement of the birth of Jesus and the arrival of the Three Wise Men.
December 31: La Festa di San Silvestro – New Year’s Eve
January 1: Il Capodanno – New Year’s Day
January 6: La Festa dell’Epifania – The Epiphany
Beware of Witches bearing Gifts
While Babbo Natale (Santa Claus) and exchanging presents on Christmas Day are becoming more common in Italy, the main day for gift giving is still the Epiphany, which is the 12th day of Christmas. It represents the day when the three Wise Men gave Baby Jesus their gifts. (Of course historians have now confirmed that Mary returned all their bizarre gifts at the mall the next day in exchange for more practical items. Let’s be honest, gold makes a nice gift, but what the hell do you do with Myrrh?)
So instead of Jolly Ole’ Saint Nick, in Italy the gifts are brought by La Befana, the old witch. She arrives on her broomstick during the night of January 5th and fills the stockings with toys and sweets for the good little bambini—and lumps of coal for the bad ones.
Here’s the rest of the story, mostly plagiarized from other websites:
According to the legend, the night before the Wise Men arrived at the manger, they stopped at the shack of an old woman to ask directions. They invited her to come along but she replied that she was too busy. Then a shepherd asked her to join him but again she refused. Later that night, she saw a great light in the sky and decided to join them after all. She brought with her toys and gifts that had once belonged to her own child, who had died. But sadly, she got lost and never found the manger. So now La Befana flies around on her broomstick each year on the 11th night, bringing her gifts to all the children in hopes that she might eventually find the Baby Jesus. Sad but sweet, no?
The origins of La Befana actually go back farther, to the Roman pagan festival of Saturnalia, a celebration of the winter solstice. At the end of Saturnalia, Romans would go to the Temple of Juno on the Capitoline Hill to have their augers read by an old crone. Many pagan traditions were incorporated into Christmas celebrations when Christianity became main stream and La Befana was a clever substitute for the old woman who read the augers. Saying “auguri” to your friends and family originated from this practice, as it was polite to wish your fellow Romans “good augers.”
La Befana is celebrated throughout Italy, but some towns really go all out. One of the biggest celebrations is in the town of Urbania in Le Marche region, which holds a 4-day festival for La Befana from January 2-6. Children can meet La Befana in La Casa della Befana. There are also boat races, Regata delle Bafane, that are held in Venice on January 6. Men dressed up as La Befana race their boats along the Grand Canal.
So as you can see, there are some Christmas traditions that are common to both the US and Italy, while there are many more that make absolutely no sense at all. But who cares? It’s the holidays, which is the time of year when we should enthusiastically embrace any excuse to celebrate and wear ugly sweaters (well, in America). Let’s forget our differences and just enjoy each other’s company. Peace, love, and fruitcake! Gifts of Myrrh for all my friends! (OK, it’s now obvious that the grappa is in complete control. Time to go to bed.)
Merry Christmas, Buon Natale, and Tanti Auguri to everyone–and thank you all for reading my blog.