Christmas in Italy is an important time for families to get together. It is a quiet period, much less commercialised than in some other parts of the world. There is obviously a religious aspect but, as a religious festival, Christmas is less important than Easter in the Italian Catholic Church. The Christmas period starts on the 8th December and continues until the 6th January. The 8th of December is the day of the 'Immacolata Concezione', the 'Immaculate Conception', which celebrates the birth of Mary, the mother of Jesus. The 6th of January, 'Epifania' , the 'Epiphany', celebrates the arrival of the Three Kings into the presence of the baby Jesus, lying in his manger.
St Peter's Basilica
The Catholic Church also celebrates the 'Novena', nine days of prayer leading up to the 8th of December, which is a feast day.
While many people focus their attention on Christmas Day itself, in Italy, it is Christmas Eve which is more important. 'La Virgilia', starts with an extremely long lunch, 'La Festa dei sette pesci', the Feast of the Seven Fishes. This is followed by church, and the celebration of Midnight Mass.
'Natale', Christmas Day, along with 'Il Giorno di Santo Stefano', Boxing Day, are both quieter days, spent at home with family. The giving of gifts on Christmas Day is also far more limited than some other cultures, with children receiving gifts also on 5th January.
Christmas trees are not very common in Italy, at least not in the home. The traditional Italian Christmas decoration is the 'Presepe', which is a model depicting the nativity scene. This tradition is said to have been originated by St Francis of Assisi who, returning to Italy from a visit to Bethlehem, wanted to share what he had seen with others.
A simple presepe
While some presepi still limit themselves to a simple stable, occupied by Jesus, Joseph and Mary, others have become stunning examples of imagination, creativity and workmanship. 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
Today, the centre of this activity is Via San Gregorio Armeno in Naples. It has been nicknamed 'Christmas Alley', because the whole area is full of artisans, hand-making ever more elaborate scenes to house every conceivable kind of figure, complete with working models, water features and atmospheric lighting.
The work of Giuseppe Ercolano
Some of these wonderful creations are true works of art and they represent a uniquely Italian celebration of the Christmas story.
Every Christmas, the Vatican displays an exhibition of 100 Presepi in St Peter's Square. These creations come from Rome, all over Italy as well as the rest of the world.
In addition to presepi, artisans from all over Italy create a vast array of beautiful Christmas decorations from glass, ceramics and wood.
The Christmas period draws to an end with the visit of the 'Befana', the Witch, on the night of 5th January. This old hag flies around Italy on her broomstick, dressed in a black shawl covered in soot, delivering presents and sweets to children that have been good, and lumps of coal to those that haven't!