Italian Christmas is rich in tradition and truer to the Christian origin of the holiday than in most western cultures' observance of the day. While commercialism, Santa Claus and elaborate gift-giving have all made inroads into the modern Italian Christmas, most Italians still celebrate centuries-old customs surrounding the birth of Jesus at Christmas.
The celebration of Christmas as the day of Christ's birth is believed to have originated with the Romans in the third century, making Italy one of the first places to ever celebrate the holiday. Italian Christmas did not become widely observed and popular until at some point in the early Middle Ages. It was during this time that the first nativity scene ever constructed was made in Italy. According to tradition, St. Francis of Assisi built the first nativity scene, or presepio, in 1223 A.D. to encourage commoners to celebrate Christ's birth and make the Italian Christmas celebration more widespread.
The Italian Christmas is not just a day of celebrating Christ's birth, but an entire season of festivities that begins on December 8 with the Immaculate Conception, a Roman Catholic holy day, and ends on January 6 with Epiphany. Various saints' days are celebrated throughout the Italian Christmas season, all relating to the birth of Christ and the arrival of the Wise Men.
Traditional presepi, or nativity scenes, are on display in most towns throughout the Italian Christmas season. While decorating Christmas trees is an integral part of the holiday season in most western countries, in Italy the creation and display of nativity scenes is the focal point of a traditional Italian Christmas. Most Italian families also have smaller nativity scenes in their homes throughout the Christmas season. Caroling is also an important part of an Italian Christmas, though traditional Italian caroling is different from American caroling. In the week before Christmas, children travel from door to door singing carols, sometimes accompanied by bagpipers, symbolizing the shepherds that played their music for Mary in Bethlehem. Most Italians fast for 24 hours before the Christmas Eve meatless feast. During the Italian Christmas Eve, families light candles around their nativity scenes, recite the Christmas story, and pray before attending Midnight Mass. Epiphany is central to the Italian Christmas. It is on this day that the children receive their presents from La Befana, a nice old witch that flies around on her broomstick and leaves gifts for all the good girls and boys. Legend has it that La Befana was told by the Wise Men about the birth of Christ and went to find him but got lost and has wandered in search of him ever since, leaving presents at every home in the hope that He might be inside.
By continuing all the aspects of a traditional Italian Christmas, Italians have staved off some of the commercialism surrounding Christmas evident in most western countries. Christmas has a rich history in Italy since that is where it was first named a holiday and where the first nativity scene was created, and Italians today continue to honor that history by celebrating the traditional Italian Christmas.
Almost 90 percent of Italians identify themselves as Roman Catholic, and with the Pope and the Vatican such a central part of Italian culture, it is apparent why the Italian Christmas has stayed truer to the original meaning of the holiday than in other countries. The Catholic Church in Italy and its millions of adherents are the major reason that an Italian Christmas barely resembles the commercialized, secular celebration of Christmas common around the world.