Vigilia di Natale (Christmas eve), December 24th

 

 While Europe generally celebrates Christmas on the actual day of December 25th, Italy is a bit of an exception in that most regions tend to honor the date on its eve night. This is not a hard rule, mind you, but broadly speaking to Italians the 25th is best left as a day of rest and enjoyment of the family and the Christmas presents. As most events in the country, the focus of the celebration is food: in this case this takes the form of a rich dinner on the 24th. As the family congregates around the table, this is also the occasion to catch up with those relatives who keep just a loose contact throughout the year, and to enjoy especially expensive dishes as a sort of prosperity wish for the coming year. The real festivities, however, begin as dinner ends.

Given that the celebration is about the birth of baby Jesus, the key ritual concerns nativity scenes. In some families, especially in the southern regions, this becomes a private celebration. The house lights are turned off, and a small procession is held in which the youngest of the family leads the others from room to room holding a candle as a guiding light. Everyone sings traditional, simple songs about the coming of Jesus and the procession ends at the presepe, a nativity scene with figurines. Here a parent brings out the baby Jesus figurine, each family member kisses it and the image is finally placed in its place in the scene. This ritual also appears in a much larger format in many cities and villages, with full scale processions on the streets and/or with the preepe vivente, a tableau with actors portraying the nativity characters that can be as large as hundreds of costumed roles. Such street events are always accompanied by a priest chanting Christmas litanies, but sometimes they are fully integrated in the collective ritual of the grand midnight mass. These Catholic celebrations are entirely religious, yet in this specific occasions it is rather common for the church to make a sort of a show of it, involving in example famous singers to lead the sacred choir, and the secular carols later on when the mass is over.