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WorldView: Christmas in Italy
Italian traditions in Italy are based heavily on the religion of
Christianity. Christmas starts eight days before Christmas and lasts
till after the Feast of Epiphany. Musical salutes are made at the shrine
of the Virgin Mary and songs are played at the homes of carpenters in
honor of St. Joseph. Eight days before Christmas, a special Novena of
prayers and church services begin. It all ends on Christmas Day. On
December 23rd, sometimes earlier, children dressed as shepherds with
sandals, leggings tied with crossing thongs, and wearing shepherds’
hats, go from house to house playing songs on shepherds’ pipes and
giving recitations. They receive money to buy Christmas treats. In
cities like Rome real shepherds sometimes carry out the performance.
A strict fast is observed 24 hours before Christmas after which a meal
with many dishes (but no meat) is served. The traditional Christmas
dinner, Cenone, is made up of spaghetti and anchovies, an
assortment of fish, fresh broccoli, tossed salad, fruits, and sweets.
A Yule log, the Ceppo, is burned, and toasts in wine and wishes for the
future are expressed. The Urn of Fate, an old Italian tradition, is a
large ornamental bowl that holds wrapped gifts for members of the
family. When the family gets together, each member takes his turn at
drawing a gift from the urn until all the presents are distributed.
The presepio (manger or crib) represents in miniature the Holy Family
in the stable and is the center of Christmas for families. Guests kneel
before it and musicians sing before it . The presepio figures are usually
hand-carved and very detailed in features and dress. The scene is
often set out in the shape of a triangle. This is a wooden frame
arranged to make a pyramid several feet high. Several tiers of thin
shelves are supported by this frame. It is entirely decorated with
colored paper, gilt pine cones, and miniature colored pennants. Small
candles are fastened to the tapering sides. A star or small doll is
hung at the apex of the triangular sides. The shelves above the
manger scene have small gifts of fruit,candy, and presents. The ceppo
is in the old Tree of Light tradition which became the Christmas tree
in other countries. Some houses even have a ceppo for each child in
the family.
From the Castle of Saint Angelo in Rome a cannon is fired to proclaim
the opening of the Holy Season. Each tries to outdo the other by
displaying the biggest presepio.
Children in Italy hang up their stockings on the Feast of the
Epiphany, January 6. They celebrate the visit of the Three Kings to
Bethlehem. Instead of Santa Claus, children are expecting Befana.
She is a witch-like character who rides around on a broom. The
legend is that the Three Wise Men, I re magi, stopped at Befana's hut to ask[giotto: re magi]
directions on their way to Bethlehem and asked her to join them. She
said no, she was too busy. Later a shepherd asked her to join him in
paying respect to the Baby Jesus. Again, Befana said no. Later when it
was dark and she saw a great light in the skies, she thought perhaps
she should have gone with the Wise Men. So, she gathered some toys
that had belonged to her own baby, who had died, and ran to find the
kings and the shepherd. But Befana could not find them or the stable.
Now, each year she looks for the Christ Child. And each year since
she can not find him, she leaves the gifts for the good children of Italy
and pieces of charcoal for the bad ones..
No meat is eaten for twenty-four hours before Christmas Eve, but
there follows a meal as big as the family can afford. A special New
Year Banquet is eaten on the last day of the year, with raisin bread,
turkey, chicken, rabbit, and spaghetti. Champagne is the drink of the
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