Like all customs and traditions in Italy, Christmas celebrations vary greatly in the different regions along the peninsula. Though each locality-often down to the tiniest village-has its own firmly rooted customs, a rough division into northern, southern, and central Italy may be drawn concerning some of the major characteristics and symbols of the Christmas holidays. Thus in northern Italy, where fir trees from the Alps are more readily accessible, the Christmas tree prevails over the holiday scene, while the south sticks pretty much to the traditional Italian presepio, or Crib of the Nativity (introduced by St. Francis of Assisi in the thirteenth century). In some parts of the country, particularly in Tuscany, the burning of a huge log, the ceppo, is still an essential feature of the yule time ceremonies.
A few days before Christmas, the city scene in southern and central Italy is enlivened by the appearance of the zampognari-bagpipers who come down from the mountains to play their characteristic tunes. These are not to be compared with the American Christmas carols but are, rather, elaborate variations of simple shepherd tunes. Except for a few church songs sung at midnight Mass, there are no popular carols known throughout Italy, nor is group singing practiced as it is in this country. (This applies to the general custom, but exceptions of local character must also be kept in mind).
Christmas, as a rule, is a family affair. Social gatherings, too, are limited to very close friends and are kept in a spirit of quiet serenity. Parties with drinking and dancing, particularly on Christmas Eve, are not considered in good taste. Theaters, movies, etc., are closed on Christmas Eve, while on Christmas Day public entertainment is limited to children's shows and special programs in keeping with the holiday spirit. Special dinners and traditional foods are, of course, an important part of the general merrymaking.
Gifts, also limeted to the family circle, are brought by Gem Bambino, the Christ-child, and not by Santa Claus. There is, however, a Babbo Natale too-a kind old man with a white beard who does resemble Santa without enjoying the popularity of his American counterpart. (Nor is he seen "in person" at every street corner: he lives mostly in a child's dreams, to make one appearance, perhaps, on Christmas morning.)
(Incidentally, the actual season for a large-scale exchange of gifts is not Christmas but the day of Epiphany [January 6], when the Befana, a benevolent old witch, comes down the chimney to fill children's shoes with goodies, plus, in retribution for some inevitable misdeed, a few pieces of charcoal. On Befana Day, even policemen are remembered by their patrons who, as they pass their usual routes, drop a package at the feet of their favorite traffic cop.)
On Christmas Eve, Italian children like to "surprise" their parents with the traditional "Christmas Letter"-written on ornate stationery-in which they promise to be good and obedient and wish Mamma and Papa a happy holiday. These letters are surreptitiously slipped under Papa's dinner plate and are then read by the latter amidst the general emotion and edification of the whole family.
Public manifestations at Christmas time are characterized by the usual festive illuminations, decorations, and window displays, but many cities and villages have their own additional feature to the holiday scene. Typical among these is Rome's historic Piazza Navona with its huge presepio, its innumerable stands selling crib figurines, or pastori, as well as Christmas sweets, the continuous movement of shopper and strollers, the shouts of the vendors and the tunes of the zampognari mingling in a carnival of merriment.
All churches, at Christmas time, vie in exhibiting the biggest or most artistic presepio in town. Most famous is the Ara Coeli Church, also in Rome, whose crib has long been venerated as a miraculous shrine. (It is said that the Christ-child, having been stolen by thieves, returned that same night knocking at the church door, to be admitted by the monks not without a warning to be better taken care of in the future.) From a high platform erected in front of the presepio, Roman children like to deliver little sermons, recite poems, and tell the story of the Nativity to glorify Gesit Bambino.
Christmas in Italy is truly a holy day-as well as a holiday-on which cheers and rejoicing have not lost their original meaning: to celebrate the birth of Christ.