Christmas in Italy is very unique since it has two origins. One is the familiar Christian tradition celebrating the birth of Christ. The other is the greatest feast of the ancient Roman Empire, “Saturnalia,” which happens to coincide with the Christmas celebrations of Advent. Consequently, Christmas celebrations in Italy honor not only the birth of Christ, but also the birth of the “Unconquered Sun.”
The holiday time in Italy is ushered in by fifers. These fifers descend from the mountains of Abruzzo and Latium playing inviting and characteristic tunes on their bagpipes, filling the air with anticipation for the joyous celebration to come. This tradition is slowly dying off as the years go by, but it is still enjoyed by many.
One of the oldest and most popular traditions in Italy is the viewing of the nativity scene on Christmas Eve. These artistic and elaborate manger scenes consist of figurines of the infant Jesus, as well as Mary and Joseph. Individual artists use this basic design to create their own individual, beautiful landscapes. The most beautiful of these designs are set up in churches, and often a contest is set up between churches of the same town for the best manger scene.
Another tradition is the burning of the Yule log, which must stay lit until New Year’s Day. Christian legend tells how the Virgin Mary enters the homes of the humble at midnight while the people are away at Midnight Mass and warms her newborn child before the blazing log.
Amidst the general celebrations and religious observance of Christmas Eve, long slender candles are lighted and a Christmas banquet is spread. Most places in Italy enjoy a Christmas Eve dinner that consists mostly of fish, with as many as 10 to 20 different fish dishes prepared. Christmas sweets are extremely popular in Italy and as a rule all contain nuts and almonds.
On Christmas Eve, Italian children set out their shoes for the female version of Santa Claus, La Befana, to fill with gifts of all kinds like toys, candies, and fruit. If the children were good, their shoes would be filled on Christmas morning, however if they were bad, the shoes would be filled with coal. La Befana is the best known legend in Italy.