As the end of the year approaches, everyone is starting to experience the holiday and festival mood in various ways. The moment you step in a shopping mall, you will be immediately greeted by colourful Christmas’s decorations, bright lights, and you might even meet Santa Claus himself, if you are lucky.
As a Christian, I often find the Christmas celebrations in Malaysia too commercialised. While I’m grateful for all the local businesses’ efforts in creating a joyful ambience, I do feel a little sad as the main focus of Christmas is no longer on Jesus’ birth, but more on Santa Claus and the snow. I blame it on the Hollywood movies that planted those ideas in us.
As we have often been reminded of the old-fat-white-bearded man in Malaysia, Christmas celebrations does feel very different in Italy. Before we proceed, let’s take a moment to put aside how Americans’ celebrate Christmas – because seriously, Christmas is not all about Santa Claus and presents.
You will be reminded about Jesus’ birth
Unlike Malaysia, here in Italy, Christmas means the birthday celebration of Jesus. You will see groups of people that usually come from the churches, singing around neigbourhoods. More often than not, residents will join in the singing too. While we called it caroling in Malaysia, Italians called it ‘novena’.
Not only are good tidings spread around with songs and music, but you will also realise that crib decorations (Italians called it Presepe) are everywhere, especially in Southern Italy. The scene of the birth of Jesus Christ in a manger is recreated to remind the people about the arrival of the savior.
It is a celebration with family
During my first year in Italy, I, like many Malaysians, believed that westerners (doesn’t matter where they are from, as long as they are ang moh) did not have strong family value like most Asians. But I was so wrong, especially when we talk about Italians. It is all well known in Europe that Italians often put family first. And so, Christmas celebrations are all about family gathering.
On Christmas day, Italian families will usually gather for a long lunch. The lunch usually begins at 1pm and ends at 4pm or later. The family gathering will usually last until dinner or after dinner time.
Christmas presents are from your parents, family members and friends
As I mentioned earlier, Italians take family seriously. And hence, children are taught that the presents are from their beloved family and not Santa Claus. A very good practice, indeed. Children are taught to be thankful to their family during the celebration. And the good thing is, everyone exchanges presents no matter how old they are as it is a gesture to show their appreciation to another person.
Of course, Italians do not neglect Santa Claus altogether. Children still believe that they will be rewarded by Santa if they behave well throughout the year. But Santa will only present you with some sweets and chocolates.
Christmas trees are only up after 8th of December for a month
This might sound new to you, as it did for me when I first arrived, but you can only put up Christmas trees on the 8th of December or after, no earlier than that. Of course, in shopping areas the trees will be up much earlier for commercial purposes.
Christmas season is from December 8 until January 6
Like most celebrations, one day is probably not enough. Although the official holiday for Christmas are on December 25 and 26, but the celebration in Italy actually continues until January 6. That is when Christmas trees are taken down as well.
So if you’ve ever craved a longer Christmas celebration, Italy is the place to be.
Stella di Natale is another Christmas plant
In Italy, the Christmas tree is not the only green life seen in the house during the festive season. Another plant known as “Stella di Natale” (poinsettia) is relatively famous. You will see trucks selling these plants almost everywhere. It is a symbolic Christmas item in Italy.
No turkey for Christmas dinner / lunch
I know turkey is a so-called must have dish on Christmas in most countries, but hey, we are in Italy and trust me, turkey is nothing compared with other Italian dishes. One must-have food here is a cake called “Panettone”. It is a cake filled with dried fruits, chocolate chips or cream. You can usually find this everywhere in the markets during the festive season.
Although this is a must-have food during the Christmas, but after a Christmas feast you will find this food the least attractive. Christmas meals also means you will be over-dozed by sweet Italian desserts. You won’t know where you’d find space in your stomach, but eventually you will because you just can’t refuse Italian sweet foods.
Santa Claus is not the only one who rewards good kids
Here is the fun part. While most kids are told that they only get rewarded by Santa, Italian children get it twice for good behavior. On the Epiphany Eve (the night of January 5), an old woman (who dresses up like a witch) known as Befana will visit houses and rewards children with gifts, just like our Santa does. The difference is, Befana is usually not as well-dressed as Santa.
According to a famous legend, few day before Jesus was born, Befana was stopped by the Three Wise Men (Biblica Magi) who were seeking directions to where Jesus was. Even though Befana could not help them with directions, she was kind enough to provide them with shelter and food.
And so, the Magi invited her to join them searching for Baby Jesus, which Befana declined due to busy housework. However, after the Magi left, Befana regretted her choice and decided to search for Baby Jesus, and up till today she is still searching. And so, she will leave presents such as candy or fruits for the good kids, and onions or garlic for the bad ones.
Does this sound like a more appealing Christmas than the one you know? Perhaps you should head over to Italy this Christmas, and experience it yourself!
Also Read: Has Technology Ruined Christmas?