Many of us have not been able to visit Italy in this sad and strange year. But wherever you are, whether or not you’re Italian, you can share in the joys of an Italian Christmas.
The ancient Romans celebrated Saturnalia, a winter solstice festival, with religious rites and drunken feasts. The early Christian church decreed December 25—then the feast of the sun god Mithras—as the birthday of Gesù bambino (Baby Jesus), the “true light” who came to dispel darkness.
Modern Italian holidays blend religious and pagan traditions in celebrations that last from weeks before to weeks after December 25. Here are some key dates:
December 6: La festa di San Nicola, patron saint of shepherds and of Bari. He inspired the Dutch tradition of Sinterklaas, from a shortened version of his Dutch name. When the British took over the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam (now New York City), they adopted the gift-giving Sinterklaas but mispronounced the name as Santa Claus.
December 8: La festa dell’Immacolata, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, which honors the virgin mother of Jesus. In Rome the Pope comes to the Piazza di Spagna to drop a garland of flowers around the statue of the Madonna. (Since she stands atop a high column, fire fighters on ladders do the actual placement.)
December 13: La festa di Santa Lucia, the festival of lights. Lucia, whose name derives from the Latin lux or lucis for light, was a young Sicilian girl who lived in the third century and wore a wreath of candles as she carried food to Christians hiding in underground tunnels. When a suitor claimed to be captivated by her eyes, Lucia plucked them out and had them sent to him on a platter. In another version, she was blinded and miraculously cured. Eventually Lucia was martyred.
December 24: La vigilia di Natale, the vigil or eve of Christmas.
December 25: Natale, the “birthday” of Gesù bambino.
December 26: La festa di Santo Stefano, Saint Steven’s day.
December 31: La festa di San Silvestro, Saint Sylvester’s day, or New Year’s Eve (la vigilia di Capodanno).
January 1: Il Capodanno, literally the top of the year.
January 6: L’Epifania (Epiphany), which marks the arrival of the Re Magi, the three wise men who carried gifts from afar, and of La Befana, bearer of treats for good girls and boys.