From Mother Russia we make our way west again, this time to Bella Italia! You might expect Christmas to be a big deal in the nation considered by many to be the cradle of Christianity -- and you would be right. But as in many if not most Western countries, there is great ambivalence when it comes to the religious aspect of the Christmas celebration. While the overwhelming majority of Italians are nominally Catholic, the Christmas Eve mass will likely be the only time most set foot in a church, and, as my friend Caty puts it, that is to "make grandma happy." The relatively small number of Evangelicals in Italy have what most outsiders would consider a reactionary approach to the expression of their faith, and not without historical reason. When the Evangelical movement came to Italy, its followers felt the need to distinguish themselves from what they considered unbiblical or even corrupt practices of the Roman Catholic church. As a result, today's evangelical churches might be decorated with holly, but you will rarely see a Nativity scene in an Evangelical church or family home. On the other hand, many Evangelicals see Christmas time as an opportunity to share the true meaning of Christmas with others.
There are actually two consecutive holidays in Italy: December 25 (Natale) and 26 (Santo Stefano). This is family time, perhaps more than any other holiday of the year; as the saying goes, "Natale con i tuoi, Pasquale con chi vuoi" ("Christmas with your family, Easter with whomever you like.") Generous gifts are exchanged, and as if Italians don't eat well year round, there are two big feasts: the cenone on Christmas Eve, then the big Christmas dinner during the day on Christmas. In the south and in coastal areas, seafood will have an important place. In the interior, such as Tuscany, you might find wild boar, roast beef, rabbit, and needless to say, lots of home made pasta. Most of us are familiar with panettone, the sweet Italian fruit bread that always comes out at this time of year, and torrone, or nougat, is also popular in different varieties.
Many Italians enjoy the mercatini di Natale (Christmas markets), where Santa comes to hold court and children bring their letters for him with their Christmas wishes. Interestingly enough, there are relatively few Italian Christmas carols; this is why, according to my friend Adina, singers like Andrea Bocelli sing more English carols than Italian.
In addition to Christmas Day and Santo Stefano, there are two additional bookend national holidays related to the Christmas story: the Immaculate Conception (of Mary) on Dec. 8 and Epiphany on Jan. 6, commemorating the visit of the magi to the newborn Jesus.
Seems I'm always in Italy in the summer -- which I love -- but some day I'd like to celebrate Natale with my amici italiani!