By Jessica Herbst
The Italian Christmas season is widely celebrated with family, friends and food. The season officially starts on Dec. 8, the Day of the Immaculate Conception, and stretches all the way to The Epiphany on Jan. 6. Christmas markets, festive decorations, huge Christmas trees and public nativity scenes fill up many Italian cities, bringing the Christmas season to life.
Christmastime in Italy would be incomplete without its unique Christmas figures, which differ slightly from traditional holiday figures in the U.S. Here are some traditional holiday figures represented in Italy:
While you’ve probably heard of America’s Santa Claus or England’s Father Christmas, Italy’s version of the man in the red suit is called Babbo Natale. This version of St. Nick, however, is skinnier and more stately than Santa Claus. Although Babbo Natale may not indulge as much at Christmas dinner, he still brings a warm and kind attitude that is representative of Italy’s Christmas spirit.
Babbo Natale also has reindeer, except their names are slightly different in Italy: Cometa, Ballerina, Fulmine, Donnola, Freccia, Saltarello, Donato and Cupido.
Babbo Natale, like other Santa Claus figures, is based on the myth of St. Nicholas, who was a bishop in Myra (or today, Turkey). The real St. Nicholas lived in the fourth century, and his bones allegedly rest in a crypt at the Basilica di San Nicola in Bari today.
Another holiday that is celebrated during the Christmas season in Italy, amongst many other European countries, is St. Stephen’s Day on Dec. 26. The figure of Saint Stephen is known as the first Christian martyr and one of the first deacons of the Christian Church.
While Italian cities have different celebrations for St. Stephen’s day, Italians traditionally celebrate this holiday by visiting local nativity scenes and making donations to local churches or hospitals. Some cities have entire processions dedicated to St. Stephen. He is most commonly depicted with stones around his head, or as carrying a pile of rocks.
Arguably the most popular Christmas figure in Italy, and one that is uniquely Italian, is La Befana, or the old witch. La Befana plays a large role in the last official holiday of Italy’s Christmas season, The Epiphany on Jan. 6. The figure of the old witch has been a tradition in Italy since the 13th century, and many Italians look forward to the Epiphany as much as Christmas Day. Some Italian towns hold La Befana festivals and activities for children.
The Epiphany is celebrated in order to commemorate the three Wise Men bearing gifts for baby Jesus on the twelfth day of Christmas. At the same time as the Wise Men, an old witch set out on her own to deliver gifts to the baby Jesus. Legend says that she never found her way, so now she leaves presents for Italian children in their shoes and stockings instead.
La Befana sets out on her broomstick the night before the Epiphany, Jan. 5, flying to deliver candy and presents to good children. If the children have been naughty, however, she brings them a lump of coal. Some Italian holiday shops sell carbone, black rock candy resembling coal, so that disobedient children still get a treat on the Epiphany.
Depending on the region, children either receive many of their gifts from La Befana or open them after lunch on Christmas Day. In some smaller cities in northern Italy, the blind Saint Lucia brings presents for children as early as December 13. No matter when children receive their gifts, the true focus of the Italian Christmas season is gathering around a table for a meal with loved ones.