“Natale con i tuoi; Pasqua con chi vuoi,” Italians say. “Christmas with your family; Easter with whomever you want.” An Italian Christmas centers on stare insieme in famiglia (being together as a family). Here are some of the most beloved traditions among Italian families:
L’albero di Natale (The Christmas Tree)
Italians in the northern part of the country began decorating alberi di Natale after World War II, and the rest of the country has since embraced this tradition. In some places, families build a tree of light, a pyramid-shaped wooden frame several feet high with tiers of shelves decorated with colored banners and gilt pine cones. Often a Nativity scene (presepio) occupies the bottom shelf, with gifts of fruit, candy, and presents above, small candles fastened to the slanted sides, and a star or small doll hung at the top. In Sicily families make beautiful little altars, hung with green leaves and encircled by oranges, lemons, polished apples, pears, chestnuts, figs, and colored eggs.
La letterina di Natale (The Children’s Christmas letter)
Italian children, like American youngsters, write special letters at Christmas time. However, rather than simply requesting presents, they describe how good they’ve been at home and in school so Babbo Natale (Father Christmas) can evaluate whether they deserve the toys they want. A few weeks before Natale, with the help of their teachers, children write their thoughts and express their love and appreciation for their parents on special paper decorated with gold and silver glitter. The children hide the letters in a napkin or under their father’s plate before the Christmas meal. Every year the father pretends to be amazed to find the letter and to read the children’s self-evaluations and thanks for the sacrifices their parents have made on their behalf. In some families the father reads the letterina aloud; in others the children do so.
La tredicesima (The Thirteenth)
This is the present Italian grown-ups most look forward to: a Christmas bonus usually consisting of another month’s salary (un’altra mensilità di stipendio), which is why it’s called “the thirteenth.” Regardless of whether the amount is modest or generous, the extra money creates a sense of abundance (abbondanza) that enhances the season’s celebrations.
La filastrocca di Natale
A filastrocca is a children’s nonsense rhyme. One of the best known is la filastrocca di Babbo Natale, which many boys and girls memorize and recite for their families at Christmas:
Babbo Natale viene di notte,
viene in silenzio a mezzanotte.
Dormono tutti i bimbi buoni
e nei lettini sognano i doni.
Babbo Natale vien fra la neve
porta i suoi doni là dove deve.
Non sbaglia certo:
conosce i nomi di tutti quanti i bimbi buoni.
Father Chrismas comes at night;
He comes in silence at midnight
All the good children are sleeping
In their beds they dream of gifts.
Father Chrismas comes in the snow
He carries the gifts where they must go.
He never makes a mistake.
He knows all the names
Of all the good children
Give the gift of Italy this Christmas!
For more information and ordering links, click on the titles: LA PASSIONE: How Italy Seduced the World; LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World’s Most Enchanting Language; MONA LISA: A Life Discovered.