Christmas in Italy (Southern Europe)
Updated: Jan 17
A Brief History
Italy’s Christian history begins in Rome with Paul. It is of course, no coincidence that the Lord had Paul imprisoned in Rome to present his case to Caesar, for the Roman Empire provided the political and technological means for assuring the rapid spread of the gospel. It was during his time in Rome that Paul wrote several of his epistles (letters) which later became part of our New Testament Bible.
The early Church suffered a great deal of persecution at the hand of the Roman Emperors. The first and most famous was under the Emperor Nero in 67 AD. Since this date coincides with that of the death of Paul it is assumed that Nero was the emperor who executed Paul. However, there is no written record that Nero himself actually executed him. There were a total of ten periods of persecution of the Christian Church, concluding with the Great Persecution under Diocletian in 303. As has always been the case, persecution could not suppress Christianity.
Ten years later, in 313, the first Christian emperor, Constantine the Great would issue the Edict of Milan which instituted religious tolerance throughout the Empire. He went on to make Christianity the state religion of Rome.
Eventually, with the fall of the Roman Empire would come a period of the Middle Ages often referred to as the Dark Ages. Due to the collapse of a strong central government, there was no one to record historical events, so this period is ‘dark’ to historians. However, out of these ‘dark’ times is born a cultural and scientific revival which began in Italy and spread throughout Europe. This time is known as the Renaissance and means ‘revival’ or ‘rebirth.’
Along with this upheaval in the arts and sciences came an unfortunate upheaval in religious thought as well. This turmoil led to followers of Jesus forming various sects and denominations. Regrettably, Christians in these times believed it to be acceptable to kill those who did not share their religious beliefs; this thought process led to great bloodshed. Fortunately, over time people of faith learned tolerance for one another. It is incredible to think that a country that was once rabidly pagan is now 80% Christian, due to seeds planted by the faithfulness of Paul and scores of Christian martyrs who followed him.
As a predominantly Christian country, Christmas is an important holiday in Italy. The Christmas season is celebrated in Italy from Christmas Eve through Epiphany (Dec. 24th – January 6th). However, decorations can be seen as early as December 8th, which is the Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception. The main focus of Italian Christmas decorations is the nativity scene, called presepe or presepio in Italian. Most towns go all out with manger scenes that are very elaborate; some are life-sized and even representations of the whole town of biblical Bethlehem. Each family will have a nativity scene in their home. Traditionally, the baby Jesus is not added until Christmas Eve.
The nativity scene dates back to 1223 AD, when St. Francis of Assisi first constructed one in a cave in the town of Greccio, northeast of Rome. Every year the town of Greccio reenacts this eight-hundred-year-old tradition.
Christmas markets are a part of every town’s piazza (town square). The best ones are usually found in the north due to their proximity to Germany—which has the largest Christmas markets. Though these markets are not as large as the ones in Germany, they are wonderfully festive places to buy food and find seasonal gifts. These markets are also excellent places to purchase handmade nativities.
Many Italian families celebrate the Feast of the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve. This tradition came about as part of the Catholic tradition of abstaining from meat on Wednesdays, Fridays and Lent. Some families have eight or nine fish dishes. Theories abound of the significance of the seven dishes. One theory is that it derives from the fact that seven represents completeness and is the most frequently repeated number in the Bible.
A typical Christmas Eve dinner may consist of any of the following: Baccalà (salted cod fish), baked or fried cod, shrimp, scallops, eel, octopus or lobster. It will usually consist of some kind of pasta, vegetables, baked goods and homemade wine.
Christmas dinner will vary depending on the region, but will usually start with prosecco (an Italian sparkling white wine), include some kind of pasta, and end with a sweet bread loaf. The type of bread depends on the region. Panettone is from Milan, Pantorte is a Tuscan specialty and Pandoro originates in Verona. Another Italian holiday favorite is torrone, a confection made of honey, egg whites, walnuts, almonds or pistachios.
Instead of writing letters to Santa Claus, children write letters to their parents telling them how much they love them. This letter is usually placed under the father’s dinner plate and read after Christmas Eve dinner.
At noon on Christmas, the Pope gives his blessing to crowds gathered in Vatican Square. An old Italian tradition is for each member of the family to take a present from the Urn of Fate on Christmas Day. However, children do not open their main presents until January 6th –Epiphany. Epiphany is the celebration of the arrival of the Wise Men. Buon Natale is Merry Christmas in Italian.
Italy has had an inestimable influence in Western world culture through art, language, law and politics and of course the Roman Empire. It is a predominantly Catholic Christian country, with a rich history. Pray against governmental corruption and other criminal activity. Pray for revival in the local churches and for godly government officials.