Italians get into the Christmas spirit on December 8th when they celebrate the Immaculate Conception (note that this festival actually marks the conception of Mary, rather than that of Jesus, as God intervened to absolve Mary of original sin, while she was still in the womb.) December 8th is when many Italian homes and towns first put out their decorations, and the season continues until Epiphany on January 6th, which is traditionally when the Three Wise Men arrived in Bethlehem.
Advent is a very popular time in Italy, with special services in churches around the country on the Sundays leading up to Christmas; the nine-day period before Christmas, known as the Novena, is to celebrate the journey of the shepherds to the baby Jesus’s manger. In rural areas in particular, children go from house to house dressed as shepherds performing Christmas songs or poems, often in exchange for money or sweets.
The most important date of an Italian Christmas is Christmas Eve, though the exact order and kind of celebrations varies between regions and even individual households.
In Italy, Christmas has retained its religious roots more than in many other countries, so you’ll hear celebratory church bells on Christmas Eve to mark Jesus’s birth, but there are a few more recent and somewhat bizarre traditions: in southern Italy and Rome, bagpipe-playing shepherds, or zampognari, perform tunes in piazzas, normally dressed in traditional sheepskin and wool cloaks; and across the country, though again particularly in the south, it’s very common to play tombola, an Italian game similar to bingo, throughout the winter holiday.
You’re probably already familiar with the idea of a Christmas nativity scene. But Italians go all out with their nativities (presepi). You’ll find them in every church as well as other public areas and family homes, often depicting the entire town of Bethlehem in painstaking detail. Sometimes there’s a modern twist with contemporary characters introduced, such as a pizza-maker, favourite footballers, or politicians. In Rome, an annual exhibition displays 100 different presepi from all over the world, including miniscule versions carved into nuts, and all kinds of materials – even pasta; but it’s Naples that’s the true home of the presepe: the street Via San Gregorio Armeno is sometimes called Christmas Alley, as its shops all sell figures for the cribs, from the wacky to the traditional.
Although nowadays many children receive presents from Father Christmas on Christmas Eve, a uniquely Italian tradition is that of ‘La Befana’, the old woman who brings gifts on Epiphany Eve. Legend has it the Three Wise Men came to her house and invited her to join their search for Christ; she was too busy with housework, so declined, but later changed her mind, and to this day is still searching for the child, leaving presents for any good children she comes across.