Christmas has been considered the most important feast of the year since the days of ancient Rome, when the god Mithra (Sun) was celebrated. Replaced with the birth of Jesus by Christians, today it still remains an opportunity to celebrate the past year, family and loved ones with gifts, dinners at home and various traditional ceremonies.
When we think of Christmas, we immediately think of the decorated tree, the evergreen embellished with lights, festoons and small packaged gifts, which becomes the place where presents are placed for opening on the feast day.
The crib: a deeply felt tradition
The second most widespread custom related to Christmas concerns the Nativity scene, a typically Italian custom of the birth of Jesus. The composition is set up with various traditional symbols and figures: ox, donkey, Joseph and Mary, shepherds, cave, the Three Wise Men, sheep, angels and manger, which hosted the child Jesus at his birth.
If you want to admire the ancient craftsmen who have been making the statuettes for generations, a trip to the famous Via San Gregorio Armeno in Naples is a must.
Another not-to-be-missed tradition, which is widespread in many Italian locations, is that of living Nativity scenes - historical representations with people in flesh and bones that bring the Nativity back to life, inserted in well-tended scenic contexts.
For children, the true star is the legendary Santa Claus, who distributes presents to children during the eve, based on letter of requests for the toys and gifts they would like.
Christmas: Italians at the table
Italians usually celebrate Christmas Day with a family dinner or lunch, followed by the exchange of presents around the decorated tree.
In some parts of Italy the Eve is celebrated on the evening of the 24th; in other regions instead, Christmas is celebrated on December 25th at lunch. For the dinner on Christmas Eve, traditionally the Christmas culinary offer should not contain meat, but fish dishes. In general, whether it is a dinner or a lunch, Christmas is an occasion of great culinary splendour with many dishes.
Each region has its own gastronomic specialities, but some Christmas cakes are particularly appreciated: Panettone, a Milanese cake enriched with candied fruit and raisins, Pandoro from Verona and torrone (kind of nougat), a delight with toasted hazelnuts.
At the end of the family gatherings full of rich lunches and banquets, it is customary to recite a lovely proverb: "Christmas with your family, Easter with whoever you want"!
While Christmas is celebrated in homes with dinners and decorated trees, town squares and streets are illuminated with bright, shimmering lights, and Christmas markets with large mounted trees offer souvenirs and culinary tastings.
Epiphany takes away all the festivities!
The Christmas period ends with the Epiphany, or the manifestation of the divinity of Jesus to the Three Wise Men; in Italy, the occasion is celebrated with the Befana, an old woman flying on a broomstick who bears gifts. Tradition has it that on the night between January 5th and 6th, the Befana fills socks left by children with sweets and small gifts or with coal, based on good or bad behaviour during the year.
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