Buono Natale from Italy
The sights, The sounds, The smells of Christmas in Italy
Visiting Italy during the winter reveals a side of Italy without the crowds of tourists.
Locals reclaim their towns and celebrate grape and olive harvests, truffle hunts and prepare for the Christmas season. Travelers can see how Italians celebrate the biggest holiday of the year and sometimes become part of the celebration.
Every town and city will be working to create special Christmas events and displays during the weeks prior to December. On trips Home to Italy during December I found traditions similar to ours in the USA and others that I hope to will become part of our traditions.
You will not see plastic snowmen, candy canes or Rudolf. Excessive commercialism found in most American cities is replaced with communal decorations and events. The single outstanding feature in every town and city has been the street lights. Always done in white lights, no matter if it is Lake Como or Rome, street lights are over whelmingly the signature holiday decoration. Each town has different light designs. Often individual neighborhoods will adopt a particular light theme. In Sorrento there was only one design throughout the entire town. In Rome every main street was unique: from cascading waterfall lights to snowflakes. The store window displays become secondary to the stunning street lights. Italians enjoy una passeggiata (evening strolls) and during this season they may spend more time admiring the lights and visiting with friends on the streets.
I have been told the street is their ‘living room’ where Italians will meet and greet friends.
Italian Christmas Markets
Almost every town has a Christmas market in the weeks before Christmas. The larger cities create markets that can be enjoyed for three weeks in December. Often the market is a series of huts or booths constructed specially for vendors selling food, crafts, gifts, nativity scenes, decorations and toys. Music, plays and ‘enactments’ are often part of the towns’ market events.
Possibly one of the largest markets in in Rome in Piazza Narvona. This huge public square is filled with booths, a carousel, entertainers and most of the families in Rome!
I watched a child try cotton candy for the first time, vendors making crepes and oversized donuts with nutella. A mainstay in Rome is the puppet man.
Hundreds of puppets and no two alike! Antichi Burattni fills a booth that delights children and adults. Pick your story book character, public official etc and he probably has it on display.
Who is Le Befana?
Witch dolls can be seen hanging in stores along with traditional nativity set. According to Buzzle, (www.buzzle.com/articles/italian-christmas-traditons.html) “an old witch flying on a broom, known as La Befana, who leaves toys for children during epiphany. According to legend, the three wise men stopped at the home of La Befana, seeking directions. They invited her to go with them and meet Jesus, but she refused. Later that evening, she changed her mind. Gathering up toys from her own child, who had died, she flew off to meet Jesus. However, she lost her way, and has been flying ever since. On Christmas Eve, she stops at every child’s house and leaves a Christmas gift, just in case Jesus is there”. La Befana never came to New Jersey at Christmas.
Children and some adults write appeals to Babbo Natale and attach them to an evergreen. This 20 foot tree was in the main train station in Rome
Hot Chocolate so thick it looks like pudding. I was told this seasonal drink was made with “chocolate, “milk without water” (condensed), sugar”. Special machines churn the mixture constantly and heat it to 70 degrees. Panne or cream is added to each cup.
Tombola: Originating in southern Italy, I had never heard of the Italian game that our Bingo must have evolved from.
The entire family will play Tombola at Christmas time. There are 99 numbers in Tombola and each has a separate meaning. An example: #1. L ’Italia means Italy #2 La Bambina means little girl.*
As it was explained to me by Caterina, my video translator, “tombola is similar to bingo; each player has a card with some numbers divided in rows. There is also a board with all the numbers from 1 to 99 and one of the players picks up a number from a bag”. “Once you find a number on your card you mark it, if you mark 5 or 10 numbers in a row you win a prize. But the biggest prize is for who first marks all the numbers on his card”. My friend in Firenze tells me the players use fava beans to mark their cards.
Interesting that it is played only at Christmas time when American play at any opportunity
Many of our Italian American Christmas traditions mirror those in Italy: letters to Santa, street lights, markets. I find our Italian friends do a very special Christmas that we would all enjoy.
* For a detailed description of rules of play consult an article by Francesca Di Meglio http://www.italiansrus.com/articles/ourpaesani/tombolameanings.htm