Celebrating Christmas in Italy

The Christmas season is always a fun time in Rome, when everyone from John Cabot University’s close-knit community comes together to celebrate and explore the city’s festivities. It is a unique experience for study abroad students to spend the season in a nation of such historic depth and ancient tradition as Italy. The first Christmas was actually celebrated in Rome, where the Roman Empire and the Christian Church originated. December 25th had been previously celebrated as “Saturnalia”, the greatest pagan feast of the year in tribute to the “unconquered sun,” but in the 4th century Roman Emperor Constantine accepted Christianity and sought to bring the pagan masses into the religion by merging the Solstice and the birth of Jesus.

The first Christmas mass was said at the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore and the earliest known permanent nativity scene was carved in marble there for the Rome Jubilee in 1300. The nativity scene, or presepe, is still the main focus of Christmas decorations in Italy. In Rome, strolling around the center and visiting churches and piazzas to admire their nativity scenes is a favorite holiday pastime. In 1982, Pope John Paul II began the annual tradition of displaying an extravagant nativity scene in in St.  Peter’s squarebefore the Christmas Tree and of course Saint Peter’s Basilica is the site of the world’s largest midnight mass. At noon on Christmas Day, the Pope gives his Christmas message from the apartment window overlooking the square.

While most Italian homes feature Christmas trees, many Italians, especially in the South, prepare their own nativity scenes. The creation of figurines developed into an important genre of folk art and craftsmanship in Italy, reaching a high point in 17th century Naples, and in fact, nowhere is the passion for the presepe greater than in this city.

Many Italian Christmas celebrations start on December 8th, the Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception, and continue until Epiphany on January 6th, a national holiday commemorating the 12th day of Christmas when the three Wise Men brought gifts for Baby Jesus. In Italian folklore, a benevolent witch known as La Befana arrives on her broomstick on the night of January 5th to fill children’s stockings with gifts. While Babbo Natale (Santa Claus) and giving presents on Christmas have become very common, children still look forward to receiving stockings full of candy from La Befana on January 6th.

Rome literally lights up during the Christmas season and a popular activity is to stroll the enchanting streets to the markets near Castel Sant’Angelo where there is an outdoor skating rink, musicians and roasted chestnuts. Piazza Navona, the famous Baroque square near the university in Rome, transforms into an enormous Christmas market with all kinds of sweets, gifts and special attractions. Bagpipe and flute players (zampognari and pifferai) are often present, many of whom travel from the Abruzzo mountains, wearing traditional colorful costumes, sheepskin vests, long white stockings and dark cloaks.

Christmas Eve dinner is traditionally  meatless. The first course features pasta with fish-based sauce, while countless types of fish, including eel, salmon, and swordfish show up as main courses. Lunch is the major meal of Christmas Day and can consist of elaborate lasagnas and meat-stuffed pastas like tortellini and ravioli, followed by a main course of roast lamb or turkey. Typical  Christmas desserts include panettone, a type of sweet bread studded with raisins and candied fruit, and the buttery pandoro (“golden bread”)

There are many wonderful opportunities to be found from study in Italy and joining in the local holiday celebrations is certainly one memorable experience!


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