Traditional Christmas Greeting: "Buon Natale"
Location: Southern Europe
Tree Type: Cultural
Decorations: Italy never adopted the Christmas tree as a symbol of the Christmas season. The Nativity set or crèche is the focal point of the Italian Christmas celebration. The crèche display denotes the true meaning of Christmas. After 60 years, it was decided that Italy would include a tree in the exhibit.
Traditions: Christmas, in Italy, has two origins: The Christian traditions and the pre Christian traditions of the winter solstice celebration (Saturnalia). St. Francis of Assisi introduced the nativity or crèche in 1223 in the little village church of Greccio. St. Francis was the first to use live people and the tradition caught on. Crèche displays (Praesepio) can include just a few figures or can be very elaborate and include many figures.
Christmas Eve is also time for viewing Italy's artistic and elaborate manger scenes or Crèche. They consist of figurines, in clay or plaster, of the infant Jesus, Mary and Joseph. An ox and ass are nearby because legend has it that they warmed the child with their breath. It is around this basic focal point that individual artisans create their own intricate landscapes. There may be grottoes, small trees, lakes, rivers, the lights of "Bethlehem" in the background, angels hung from wires, and occasionally, even local heroes.
The most beautiful Crèches are set up in churches.There is often a contest between churches of the same town for the best Crèche. People go from church to church to view and compare the Crèches and displays.
The Yule log, which must stay alight until New Year's Day, is another focus of the holiday. This, again, is an example of pagan and Christian blending. The pagan belief explains the purifying and revitalizing power of fire, and that with the burning log, the old year and its evils are destroyed. Christian legend tells how the Virgin Mary enters the homes of the humble at midnight while the people are away at Midnight Mass and warms her newborn child before the blazing log.
Gifts are also given out on the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6th The children set out their shoes on the night before the Epiphany in anticipation of the coming of La Befana. La Befana is an old woman who travels throughout Italy on a broom leaving gifts of toys, candies and fruit for the children. If they were bad, they would find their shoes filled with coal.