Natale (Christmas), December 25th


Christmas is, of course, a globalized festivity now: it looks quite the same in Italy and the United States alike, and pretty much everywhere else. Inside families’ houses, however, some local traditions still remain. And guess what? They don’t look anything like most “Italian” websites pretend to know.

First things first, the “feast of the seven fishes” – or whatever Americans call it – never, ever was part of the Italian culture. We couldn’t place any firm origin to it, but sure enough it wasn’t in Italy. You can try it yourself: Google it restricting the results to Italian language webpages, and you’ll come up with zilch – excluding those sites wondering what is that supposed to be. The same goes for the preposterous tradition of ceppo (literally: ‘log’). While of course Italian fireplaces may use logs, nobody ever thought of dressing it up like an advent calendar or whatever. Ditto the unsettling-sounding “urn of fate”. There are, however, some actually Italian traditions which are typical of Christmas time. The oldest of them is probably the wandering zampognari, musicians dressed as medieval peasants who walk the streets playing traditional Christmas music on their bagpipe. They are of course as annoying as you can imagine, and they usually collect charity for themselves or some noble cause. Zampognari and a certain bucolic connection can be found in another actual Italian Christmas tradition: nativity scenes. These are miniature reproductions of the birth of the Christ: they can be as simple as a cool, stylized line drawing or intricate and huge recreations employing thousands of hand-carved and hand-painted statues, each one symbolizing one specific profession or social caste. The city of Napoli has a sort of monopoly on artisanal nativity statuettes, and some of them can fetch impossibly high prices.

What’s curious is that the characters are generally very Italian-looking, often including at least one celebrity from the year’s news disguised as a shepherd or something. Some monasteries have permanent nativity scenes that can be animated or taking up large rooms, and they are popular pilgrimage destinations. This sort of scenes, called presepe, sometimes also take the form of presepe vivente, or living nativity scene. In these cases actual costumed people recreate the birth of Jesus, sometimes involving the entire population of small villages. In any case, however, the baby Jesus statue isn’t put in the scene until December 24th – otherwise it will bring bad luck.