Buon Natale versus Merry Christmas

Christmas Alley in NaplesOutdoor Christmas Decorations
As is seen in the US, the Christmas decorations, marketing, and gift specials were in full swing the day after Halloween.  Lights went up at just about every store or shop we visited and yet the homes of Italians were unaffected.  December 8th is the day.  December 8th is the day of the Immaculate Conception, the day an angel appeared to Mary to explain that she would soon be giving birth to a son.  (We won’t highlight the fact that it therefore doesn’t make sense that we celebrate Christmas 17 days later but whatever, we’ll roll with it).  The day of the Immaculate Conception is widely accepted as the day that Italians put up decorations, and while more and more Italians have begun adopting the tradition of putting up a tree, it is the “presepi” or nativity sets that are the centerpiece of the home.  It is truly lovely to find markets in downtown Italy that are lined with these nativity sets, that despite the heavy commercialism, the Italian people truly “get” the reason for the season and focus on the right things.
So in restaurant menu terms you can choose to find a complete “combo meal” which would include the standard manger, 3 wisemen, shepherds, and the holy family, but no self respectin’ Italian would be seen with such an elementary set. Much in the same vein as our Victorian Villages, their presepi include an entire community that would be typical in the days of Jesus’s birth. From the butcher, to the seamstress, to the family preparing dinner and of course the holy family finding refuge in the innkeeper’s stable, all are available to create your own “little town of Bethlehem.” So you can buy the pre-made set or you can buy the stable and then add all the characters of the Christmas story.   Some shops even have the materials you need to create your own figures! There is a place called Christmas Alley and all they have are supplies to stock your Nativity set, it’s amazing!
Auchan as I mentioned in a previous posting is their version of Walmart, and while they have quite the selection of outdoor lights and ornaments, I would say more than 50% of their display is presepio.  As for their outdoor decorations, now THAT is interesting.
They have lights and wreaths, but then they have an entire selection of outdoor winter animals. You know, animals that you would expect to see in the snow, like deer and snow rabbit, but not outlined with lights, these look realistic and there is a whole aisle of them–now that’s different! In just about every town we visited the undeniable centerpiece was the presepio, whether it be a live one, (which how cool, right?), a ceramic dispay, a live size town of Bethlehem including all the other townspeople, or a mechanical town with all moving parts, every town has one and they were amazing to visit!
The Annunciation as depicted by the displayed presepio in Loretto, Italy
Also, quite interesting were the tree stands. I guess I never gave it much thought but our tree stands are pretty plain jane as compared to the Italians. The tree stands are as much of decor as the ornaments are! They have snowmen holding up the tree, Santa sleeping under the tree, and even a big Santa boot to put the tree in.

Italian Christmas tree stands
Now, here’s an interesting factoid, while trees are becoming more and more popular, Italians choose to put up either an “alive tree” or an artificial tree. While this may sound the same as what we do in the States, it was pointed out that we put up “dead trees”. Christmas trees come with roots in Italy and the intention is that they will be replanted so that you are not killing a tree for a decoration in your home but instead will allow it to continue to grow and thrive. Still, many Italian families have what is called a “ceppo,” which refers to a pyramid shaped structure made of wood. This tiered tree was believed to have started in the Tuscan region of Italy. The tiered tree would contain three to five shelves and the frame is decorated with fancy paper. On the bottom shelf the family displays their treasured “presepio” or nativity. The remaining shelves contain greenery, fruit, nuts and presents. The presepio represent the gift of God, the fruit and nuts represent the gifts of the Earth and the presents represent the gifts of man. The top of the Ceppo is adorned by an Angel, star or a pineapple, which represents hospitality. Some families attach candles on the outside of each shelf and light them. This is why the Ceppo is often referred to as the “Tree of Light.”
Babbo Natale e La Befana in Piazza Navona

Now let’s talk about Santa.  Santa is known in Italy as Babbo Natale (Father Christmas).  Babbo is the word used by children for their father (kind of like daddy for us).  He is a skinnier and more regal looking version of Santa Claus. They both wear red cloaks with white trim, but Santa Claus has most decidedly enjoyed more second helpings at the dinner table than Babbo Natale.  Babbo Natale also has reindeer, whose names are: Cometa, Ballerina, Fulmine, Donnola, Freccia, Saltarello, Donato, Cupido.  Althought, the reindeer do not have the flying ability of Santa’s.  They are thought to just be a mode of transportation, without the capability of landing on the rooftops, though with Neapolitano driving I would think the friendly skies would be a much safer journey.  I’m just sayin’.  So as the legend goes, Babbo Natale bring presents for the children on Christmas Eve and La Befana fills their stockings on the night of January 5th, just before the Epiphany. According to the legend, the night before the Wise Men arrived at the manger they stopped at the shack of an old woman to ask directions. They invited her to come along but she replied that she was too busy. Then a shepherd asked her to join him but again she refused. Later that night, she saw a great light in the sky and decided to join the Wise Men and the shepherd bearing gifts that had belonged to her child who had died. She got lost and never found the manger.Now La Befana flies around on her broomstick each year, bringing gifts to children in hopes that she might find the Baby Jesus. Children hang their stockings on the evening of January 5 awaiting the visit of La Befana.  Ben says he’s “never gotten anything from this Befana lady but since I’m living in Italy, who knows, I’m hanging my stocking back up.  I’m not taking any chances.”

So if you know anything about me, you know that my mom’s love for Christmas runs deep in my blood and so being here in Italy where the holidays truly extend to the Epiphany is just awesome!  It has allowed us to get around to doing all the sightseeing that everyone seems to run out of time to do like visiting some of the other Christmas markets a little further out and getting to see the World’s Largest Christmas Tree Display in Gubbio.  Check out the third picture in this article: http://timiacono.com/index.php/2011/12/25/christmas-trees-around-the-world-2/
Just a few of the lights of the world's largest Christmas tree display that can be seen from the Piazza in Gubbio, Italy.
In addition to experiencing Christmas Italian style, we also had the opportunity to learn a little bit about Hanukkah.  Ben has become very close to his friend Aaron.  He is in his class and shares Ben’s love for superheroes, Legos, and video games!

His family invited all three of us to experience a celebration of the 2nd day of Hanukkhah.  There were a few prayers, the lighting of the menorah, and the enjoyment of many wonderful foods like latkes, pontshkes, sufganiyots.  Afterwards, Ben spent the night at Aaron’s house, decorated cookies and played Dreidl!  So between the Hanukkhah celebration, sweets from Germany, Italy, Bulgaria, and France, we have had a multicultural holiday!

Decorating Hanukkhah cookies

Being in the Italian immersion class this year, Ben had the opportunity to join efforts with a local Italian school for their Christmas Concert, which was sung completely in Italian.  Don’t worry, this is not your typical school concert video that will bore you to tears.  I think you will enjoy this, it’s pretty funny to see what efforts my child had to go through to be seen by his mommy in the audience.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=InfpXMMsqG4&feature=mfu_in_order&list=UL

Aaron and Ben at the Christmas Concert

So we decided with all the traveling we did for Thanksgiving, we spent Christmas Day with our new family in Napoli.  Santa brought Ben a cat named Ferrari and he is adapting well to the Leese household, Rob got the new Kindle Fire, and I …well, I got a fantastic supply of my Diet Sierra Mist Cranberry Splash!  If you think I am exaggerating the importance of this gift then you must not know me very well.  I have found so many beautiful Italian Christmas decorations to add to my collection and am still in search of the perfect presepi.  There are so many to choose from!

Piazza in medieval town of Perugia, Italy

Oh how I how I love Christmas in Italy!  We took a day trip to visit Gubbio famous for its giant Christmas tree display and Perugia-famous for its Italian chocolate.  These are few of my favorite things!  The little town of Perugia was just amazing, every nook and cranny was a glimpse at a very well preserved little medieval town and home of some of the greatest chocolate makers in the world, what could be better?

We will definitely be back to visit this little gem, but meanwhile we have returned home to ring in the New Year 2012 in Naples, Italy!



  1. Dan, I believe it is a French company called Auchan. Since living in Italy we have seen them all over Europe, including Romania, Germany, and Italy, but I don’t know if the tree stands are only in the Italian locations or not.

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