The Christmas celebrations in Italy last for nearly a full month from December 8th to January 6th. It begins with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, which is a national holiday. To mark the occasion the Christmas decorations are put up, including the tree and the very important nativity crib. The festivities then continue all of the way through until January 6th, the feast day of Epiphany. It is a month for religious devotion and spending time with the family. In the upper Northern regions of the country, gift-giving begins even earlier on December 6th when St. Nicholas visits.
In fact, there are three other times when presents are traditionally exchanged; one of which is the visit from la Befana (translated as the good witch). On January 6th, she fills the stockings of children all over Italy with sweets for those on the nice list and coal for those who have misbehaved. The story goes that she even sweeps the floor before she leaves – because of course she is such as good housekeeper, but also possibly to sweep away the problems of the previous year. It was her housework that originally kept her from accompanying the three kings on their search for the baby Jesus. When she realised that this was a mistake, she went on a quest to find him herself with her bag filled with gifts. Nowadays, she is an icon of Italian Christmas.
One of the most important decorations at Christmas is the nativity scene. These cribs, presepe in Italian, depict the stable scene within the story of the birth of baby Jesus. They are enjoyed all month round in churches, city squares and the home – but importantly the baby Jesus is not settled into his place until Christmas Day.
The city of Naples is the spiritual home of the nativity crib, with the ‘Presepe Napoletano’ having been a feature of the city’s decorations for centuries. It is a spectacular sight to behold and celebrates the craftsmanship of the artists of Naples.
Perhaps the most unusual fact in the list is that the sound of Christmas in Italy is the bagpipes. It is the ‘zampognari’ in the Abruzzi region that play bagpipes and flutes around the town to symbolise the arrival of the shepherds to greet the baby Jesus. The story goes that, after having seen the blessed baby in Bethlehem, the shepherds started to play the bagpipes. This performance was then embodied by the zampognari –shepherds who would come down from the hills into the villages to see their families and entertain the people with their music. So now, still with the players wrapped in a sheepskin vest and thick cloak, the tradition is continued in towns across Italy.
An evening playing board games is familiar here in the UK, the Italians however also add in a festive favourite – tombola. The most commonly played form of the game is the Neapolitan version. On a brightly decorated board, each number represents a symbol, and then the game is played essentially in the same way as bingo. It is a simple tradition that brings everyone from age nine to ninety together.
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