Right across the USA, the focus of family festivities at Christmas is the day itself, Christmas Day. It Italy, the focus of the festivities is more on Christmas Eve, which is called the ‘Virgilia’. The whole family gathers together to enjoy the ‘Feast of the seven fishes’. This is often followed by Midnight Mass. There is little of the commercialism surrounding Christmas that people in other countries have grown used to, often starting months before. Christmas in Italy takes place over a fixed period which starts on 8th December and finishes on 6th January.
St Peter's Basilica
The reason for this is religious. The 8th December represents the ‘Immaculate Conception’ which celebrates the brith of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and the 6th January is the ‘Epiphany’, which represents the arrival of the three kings to Bethlehem. Devout catholics also celebrate the ‘Novena’, which is nine days of prayer leading up to the ‘Immaculate Conception’, which they celebrate as a feast day.
Although some presents are exchanged at Christmas, mainly consisting of gifts sets of elaborately wrapped Panatone and bottles of sparkling wine, children receive their main presents on 5th January, where instead of Santa, an old, haggard witch flies around on a broomstick. She is called the ‘Befana’, and she delivers presents to children who have been good and lumps of coal to those who have not!
Another marked difference is in Christmas decorations. In the USA, Christmas trees are everywhere. There are certainly some trees in Italy too, but the majority of homes are decorated with a ‘Presepe’ instead.
A simple presepe
These intricate, hand made models were originally based on the traditional ‘Nativity Scene’ but have now branched out to include many different environments as well as hosts of characters and objects. This charming tradition was apparently introduced by St Francis of Assisi. Having visited the birthplace of Jesus in Bethlehem, he wanted to recreate what he had seen and share it with others on his return. Probably the most famous 'Presepe' of all is the 'Presepe Cuciniello', built in the 19th century, it features 162 characters, 80 animals, 28 angels and over 450 miniature objects.
Via San Gregorio Armeno
The Via San Gregorio, in Naples, is the centre of ‘Presepe’ design and creativity in Italy. Nicknamed ‘Christmas Alley’, if features rows of shop fronts displaying a vast array of complete scenes, little figurines and other objects to decorate each setting. Behind these shop fronts, skilled artisans sit in their workshops, creating an endless array of treasures to delight families all across Italy and the world.
The work of Giuseppe Ercolano