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Lesser-Known Italian Holiday Traditions 

Italy is well known for its religious festivities that celebrate the holiday season. However, there are several lesser known holiday traditions that occur in this Bel Paese. Below are a few examples.

L'Immacolata: The Beginning of the Italian Holiday Season

December 8th marks an important Catholic holiday called ‘The Immaculate Conception’, one of the four Marian dogmas of the Catholic Church.  In addition to its religious significance, many Italians also see this date as the unofficial beginning of the holiday season. Recognized by the Italian State as a national holiday, many celebrate the day with their loved ones. On this day, Christmas trees are meticulously decorated, nativities are neatly arranged on tabletops and even a few gifts are exchanged. To mark the occasion, a cannon is fired from Rome's Castel Sant’Angelo.

Although December 8th marks the beginning of the season in many parts of Italy, there are of course exceptions. In Bari, they adorn their trees on December 6th in accordance with the day of their patron saint, San Nicola. Similarly, in Milan, nativities are displayed on December 7th, in observance of their patron saint, Sant’Ambrogio.

Il Presepe

Presepi, or nativities in English, are a longstanding tradition in Italy. The representation of the birth of Jesus Christ is a practice that goes back to San Francesco d'Assisi (St. Francis of Assisi). He was the first to bring the nativity scene to life after a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1220AD. Francesco wished to share with his compatriots what he saw, recreating a living nativity in a cave near Greccio, a small town in the Lazio region. The event drew quite a crowd, and Francesco stood by to explain the sight, as many were unable to read at that time. The town of Greccio continues the tradition by staging a living nativity every year. Additionally, living nativities (presepi viventi) take place in many other towns across Italy. In Basilicata, the city of Matera is in its 10th edition of a living nativity. This presepe is actually a series of scenes representing daily life in Giudea 2000 years ago, in an itinerary across the unique districts of Sassi.

In Naples, the tradition of Presepi has grown into an important industry. Fine handcrafted figurines and more affordable souvenirs can be enjoyed all year by visiting Via San Gregorio Armeno (a.k.a Presepi Street) where small shops line the pedestrian street on both sides.

Across the country, Italian presepi are often made of wood, ceramic or terracotta and adorn many Italian households, churches and public places. Neighborhoods, small villages or even large towns host contests to find the most elaborate or original presepe. Some families even choose to go all out and add new additions to the nativity, such as famous footballers, politicians or even a pizza maker!

La Befana

Probably the most unusual of Italian traditions rests with the story of La Befana. The mythological Befana is an old woman who bears great likeness to a witch, with her elongated nose and broomstick. On the night before the Epiphany holiday of January 6th, it is believed that she delivers gifts to children throughout Italy. If the child has been good, she will place chocolates in their sock. If a child has been bad, she will leave a stick or lump of coal. Similar to the Western version of Santa Claus, Befana is said to enter the house through the chimney and families are expected to leave gifts of food and drink (often wine) for her consumption. Unlike Saint Nick, she sweeps the floor upon her departure, symbolizing the removal of any adverse events from the previous year.

The ICC wishes you a wonderful holiday season and a Happy New Year! 

We thank you very much for your continued support! - Dove ammirare i presepi più belli d'Italia (IT) 


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