Embracing Multicultural Italian Christmas TraditionsNovember 16, 2023
Let’s get ready to rumble!
It’s an Italian Christmas versus an Italian-American Christmas versus… an American Christmas? Whatever that is!
But, is there really that much difference among them?
An Italian Christmas
It’s not all about that tree in Italy. The Nativity crib scene is the most important decoration of the season. The Nativity scene and plays were to remind people that Jesus was born for them.
Naples, Italy is famous for its cribs! Italians put their cribs out Dec. 8, but the baby Jesus is put in the crib on Christmas Eve (as you’d expect). A Nativity scene in Naples can be meters tall with objects included like fruit, candy and presents, or the typical stable necessities.
Other than the decorations, an old Italian custom is that children go out caroling and playing on pipes, dressed as shepherds. It’s like a very specific Halloween!
Italy obviously places a great emphasis on the reason for the season. As would follow, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are holy days. In honor of a holy day, it’s customary to refrain from meat (and sometimes dairy). So on Christmas Eve, what would their holiday dinner be? Instead of meat, a seafood meal is eaten, and then it’s off to Midnight Mass!
The night ain’t over yet! When people return from Mass, they’ll have a cup of hot chocolate and a slice of Italian Christmas Cake, Panettone (dry, fruity sponge cake).
Now for the real fun! On Christmas day Babbo Natale (Santa Claus!) might bring some small gifts, but the main day for present giving is Epiphany (January 6). On that night, children believe that an old lady, called Befana, brings them presents. Stockings are hung by the fireplace with care in hopes that Befana soon would be there!
An Italian American Christmas
Like in Italy, many Italian Americans refrain from eating meat on Christmas Eve. A big holiday meal of different fish dishes might be the most important tradition of the season. It’s known as The Feast of the Seven Fishes (Esta dei Sette Pesci). Common types of fish eaten in the feast include baccala (salted Cod), clams, whiting, calamari, eel and many other seafood delectables.
Why 7 fish specifically? It might be a representation of the 7 holy sacraments of the Catholic Church, or not. Some families have more than seven kinds of fish at the Feast!
Don’t forget about dessert! Italian-Americans love frittis, fried dough rolled in sugar. A Christmas Eve necessity!
An American Christmas
America’s holiday season is saturated with many different traditions to celebrate Christmas!
A traditional Christmas meal for Western European families is turkey or ham with cranberry sauce. An Eastern European family would instead favor turkey with trimmings, keilbasi and cabbage dishes.
Popular decorations are not necessarily bought, but made. Families, and especially children, like to thread popcorn and cranberries on string to decorate their Christmas Tree.
A tradition not readily found elsewhere in the world are the lights! Americans decorate the outside of the house with lights, wreaths and statues of Santa Claus, snowmen, reindeer, Wise Men and any other seasonal symbols!
In the Southwest, there is a special custom similar to Mexico’s traditions. A luminaria or farolito is a paper sack filled with sand and a candle inside. They are lit on Christmas Eve to light the way for somewhere for Mary and Joseph to stay.
Primarily in New England, but also in other states on the East Coast, there are Christmas shops that only sell Christmas decorations and toys. And they do this all year round!
In the States, Santa Claus is known as Santa or St. Nick, and sometimes Kris Kringle. But in Hawaii, Santa is called Kanakaloka!
Opening presents is different from family to family even within the same region of the country. Some families open their gifts on Christmas Eve, others wait until Christmas morning, and some open one or more on Christmas Eve then open what Santa brings on Christmas morning.
Whether you’re eating fish, putting out the crib or setting up luminarias, a tradition is a tradition. As long as you’re with friends and family, it’s beautiful.
So who wins the Christmas “war”?