Christmas in Italy

By Hannah Donato


After 12 years of living in Italy, with my husband, Giovanni, I am still trying to understand and get used to the differences between English and Italian Christmas traditions. In the UK, while the main course people eat on Christmas Day varies, there are many standardised traditions that culminate in the celebrations on 25 December. Whereas in Italy, Christmas is celebrated with a variety of different traditions, depending on the region you are from and your family background.


In stark contrast to the UK, where as soon as Halloween is over, things get very glittery, Italian Christmas products do not appear in the shops until December. Traditionally, the Christmas tree and other decorations - including the Presepe (Nativity Scene) - are not put out until 8 December, the date of the Immaculate Conception: not Christ's immaculate conception, but that of Mary, as the Catholic Church teaches that she too was born without sin. This date is a national holiday and marks the beginning of the Christmas celebrations, with shops and streets quickly filling with Christmas decorations and lighting.


The Presepe is one of the traditional Christmas decorations used in Italy, although it is more common in the south. The Presepe began in 1223, when St Francis of Assisi orchestrated a live re-enactment of the nativity scene, much like the nativity plays we have in the UK. The idea was to bring the birth of Jesus to life by showing people the events that surrounded the nativity, and to regain a focus on Christ and not simply on the tradition of gift-giving.


What started as a way of teaching the story of Jesus' birth has evolved over time. In some areas, it has become a competition to see who has the biggest and best Presepe in front of, or inside their homes. Some people create whole towns, featuring various local businesses and townspeople - the more elaborate the better! The inn with the stable would be set in the forefront of the scene with Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus placed in full view, although the latter would only appear in the manger on Christmas Eve.


Historically, Naples has been home to many craftsmen who created handmade figures and accessories for the traditional Italian Presepe. This remains true today and in Via San Gregorio Armeno, Naples, you can still find artisan shops dedicated to this art. Although the Presepe tradition is still followed within the Roman Catholic Church, in an increasingly secular Italy the Presepe is being pushed out of public places, such as hospitals and schools, where once they were in full view for every passer-by. Christmas trees are becoming the preferred decoration. Last year, we proposed staging a nativity play for the children's weekly hour of Religious Education in our daughter Isabella's school. Although the teachers all loved the idea, it was eventually refused by the local education authority as it was deemed too thorny a subject!


From 8 to 24 December, preparations are made for the Christmas celebrations and, like most of Western Europe, lots of shopping trips take place. Families choose when and with whom to celebrate their Christmas meal, whether on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day - or even both! On 24 December it is traditional for people to eat fish, which is considered a means of purifying oneself before the indulgent meal the next day; this meal is then followed by attendance at Midnight Mass. Traditional dishes which are eaten around Christmas time, include, lasagne, panettone (sweet bread loaf), pandoro (sweet yeast bread), roast meats and tortellini in brodo (broth). Food is key to any Italian family get-together, not just at Christmas.


In place of the UK's Christmas Day family favourite, charades, many Italian families play tombola, which is less like a British raffle and more like bingo. Gifts can be opened at any time, not just on Christmas Day. Presents are also given to children at Epiphany, 6 January, when they are told that La Befana (a friendly witch) fills stockings with sweets and gifts. There are many traditions across Italy, even without going into regional or local differences; each town has its own way of celebrating Christmas!


Christmas in the Italian Evangelical Church

The way in which Christmas is viewed or celebrated within the evangelical church varies considerably. Because Italian believers are often first- or second-generation Christians, there is a strong rejection of anything that has a hint of Roman Catholicism about it. Some churches do not refer to Christmas and have no decorations, or seasonal evangelistic events and activities. Other churches might have Christmas decorations, or sing carols and hold special activities linked to the Christmas season. One needs to learn to be sensitive to these differences. For me, a nativity scene or traditional Presepe is a quaint and innocent thing, which can be used to teach the story of Jesus. However, for a believer from a Roman Catholic background, with a past of venerating sacred images and statues, it might be difficult for them to see the Presepe as something permissible or even good.


Despite varied opinions on how Christians should celebrate Christmas within our local church, each member is free to celebrate as he or she feels comfortable. Not all give presents, have Christmas trees at home or a nativity scene on display. However, we all gather for a special church meal around Christmas time and hold an event that resembles a carol service, to remember the biblical narrative surrounding the nativity. Slowly we are learning to live together and love one another in the way we approach Christmas.


Our Experience of Christmas

Working among university students, we have always seen Christmas as a great opportunity to speak about Jesus. Every year we have a Gruppi Biblici Universitari (GBU)1 Christmas party. We eat Christmas desserts from around the world, as he group comprises many international students. The event typically includes a Christmas trivia quiz, live music, a game of Tombola and a short talk on the meaning of Christmas. One year, Giovanni spoke on the difference between the Lord Jesus and Santa Claus; the message of how Jesus is a much greater and truly selfless giver, stuck with many students.


Alongside student work, we are involved in evangelism throughout our local district of Monteroni d'Arbia, which has around 10,000 inhabitants and no evangelical church. Each year, since 2013, we have held a Christmas meal for friends, neighbours and acquaintances from the local district. Although on Sundays we attend church in Siena, the Christmas meal provides a great opportunity to share the gospel with those who live closest to us. The five-course meal is cooked and served by ten members of our local church, who live in other parts of Siena, to allow the local Christians from Monteroni to sit with those whom they have invited. During the evening, craft activities are held for children, there is live music and tombola, and a Christmas presentation by the village children who come to our weekly English club. Halfway through the evening there is always a gospel talk on the meaning of Christmas. Last year one of the believers from our church, Antonio, spoke about God becoming man to save mankind. At the end of the evening we gave gifts to the children and adults who attended, with the adults receiving a Scripture calendar. Italians still hold a deep-rooted respect for the Bible, even though many have never read it for themselves, so this gift was well received. There were over 50 non-Christians present at last year's meal.


Over the years of living in Italy and being married to an Italian, I have become less attached to the British way of doing Christmas, even though I miss a good turkey roast, with parsnips and all the trimmings! Celebrating Christmas in another country, and seeing different traditions, helps to re-evaluate the central reason for the festivity and focus less on the superficial details. In Europe, Christmas is still a time of year when we have an open door to speak about Jesus and share the amazing truth, that God Himself came to earth to be the Saviour of the world.


Pray for the church in Italy this Christmas season, that Christ might be at the centre of all the celebrations, and that Christians will make the most of every opportunity to share the wonderful, powerful and eternal message of God coming to earth!


1. Gruppi Biblici Universitari (GBU) (University Bible Groups) - Italy's Christian Union movement.



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