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The Italian connection

30 November, 1999

Italy has had an important impact on how we celebrate Christmas, but Italians also have some unusual practices, writes Fr Michael Collins from Rome.

The year is coming to an end and once more Christians throughout the world are preparing to celebrate Christmas, the birthday of Jesus. Over the past two thousand years since His birth, the followers of Jesus have developed traditions and customs that make the feast special.  Perhaps no other country in the world has had such an impact on the way we celebrate Christmas as Italy.

Jesus was born in Bethlehem, in the Roman province of Palestine.  At that time the Roman Empire spread in a ring around the shores of the Mediterranean.  St. Luke records some useful details for us. “In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.” (Lk.2.1-2).

Because so many records were destroyed during the centuries of attacks on Rome, the gospel account provides us with the only record we have of such a census, or indeed proof that Quirinius was governor in Syria. We do know, however, that censuses were carried out in the spring. Once winter was over, people were again able to travel.  As soon as the crops had been planted and the flocks brought up to higher pasture, the citizens of the ancient world could attend to the chore of registering themselves for tax purposes. If the census normally took place in the spring, why is it that we celebrate the feast of Christ’s birth in mid-winter?

The answer lies in Rome, the capital city of the empire. To provide some entertainment during the short days and long drab nights of December, the Romans celebrated the feast of Saturnalia. Festivities took place between December 17th to December 23rd to mark the new solar year. The festivities began at the temple of Saturn in the Roman Forum, where candles and tapers were lit to help the waning sun find new strength to illuminate another year.  The Romans wore soft hats to underline the informality. Special chestnut sweets and honeyed fruit were a speciality of the events. Homes were decorated with green wreaths and garlands to signify new life. Schools and public offices were closed to allow everyone celebrate. Children exchanged presents and slaves were given gifts from their masters.

In A.D 274, the Roman Emperor Diocletian declared December 25th to be the feast of Sol Invictus, the feast of the Unconquered Sun.  Among those who came to worship the sun under this title were members of the army.  On the eve of the Battle of Milvian Bridge, the emperor Constantine dreamed that he saw the sun in the sky surmounted by the Greek letters P and X. Beneath it was written the phrase, In hoc signo vinces. The bewildered emperor was advised, probably by a Christian in the army, that this was the sign of Christ, for the letters P and X signified the beginning of the word ‘Christus’ in Greek. The emperor, who was a devotee of the Unconquered Sun, probably did not fully understand the import of the words, but nonetheless instructed the soldiers in his army to paint these words on their shields. His victory at the battle the following day made him believe that the Christ of the sun was on his side. Some weeks later, he gave permission to the Christians of the empire to worship freely and restored the properties confiscated by previous emperors.

For almost all his reign, Constantine was accompanied by the support of the bishop of Rome, Silvester. Shortly before the pope died in 336, he convinced the emperor to change the feast of Saturnalia into a Christian feast. Recalling his experience at the Battle of Milvian Bridge, the emperor directed that henceforth the birth of Jesus, the light of the world be celebrate on December 25th.

Perhaps the most popular of all things that Italy gave to the feast of Christmas was the Christmas Crib. It is St. Francis of Assisi who invented the tradition of making a stall where figures are put to recall the night on which Jesus was born in Bethlehem.

St. Bonaventure, a contemporary of St. Francis, tells us about the first Christmas night. “It happened in the third year before his death, that in order to excite the inhabitants of Grecio to commemorate the nativity of the Infant Jesus with great devotion, [St. Francis] determined to keep it with all possible solemnity; and lest he should be accused of lightness or novelty, he asked and obtained the permission of the sovereign Pontiff.  Then he prepared a manger, and brought hay, and an ox and an ass to the place appointed. the brethren were summoned, the people ran together, the forest resounded with their voices, and that venerable night was made glorious by many and brilliant lights and sonorous psalms of praise.  The man of God [St. Francis] stood before the manger, full of devotion and piety, bathed in tears and radiant with joy; the Holy Gospel was chanted by Francis. Then he preached to the people around the nativity of the poor King; and being unable to utter His name for the tenderness of His love, He called Him the Babe of Bethlehem. A certain valiant soldier, John of Grecio, who, for the love of Christ, had left the warfare of this world, and become a dear friend of this holy man, affirmed that he beheld an Infant marvellously beautiful, sleeping in the manger, whom the blessed Father Francis embraced with both his arms, as if he would awake Him from sleep.This vision of the devout soldier is credible, not only by reason of the sanctity of him that saw it, but also by reason of the miracles that afterwards confirmed its truth. For example of Francis, if it be considered by the world, is doubtless sufficient to excite all hearts which are negligent in the faith of Christ; and the hay of that manger, being preserved by the people, miraculously cured all diseases of cattle, and many other pestilences; God thus in all things glorifying his servant, and witnessing to the great efficacy of his holy prayers by manifest prodigies and miracles.”

Shortly afterwards, Italian artists began carving and painting figures which depicted the events of that night. Shepherds whiled away the long hours minding their sheep carving little wooden figures, which they would place in their cribs at home, or later in the church. Italians today strive to outdo one another in the beauty and skill of the cribs. Perhaps the most famous city for the Christmas crib is Naples. Since the 17th century, Neapolitans have made marvellous figurines, silks and satins starched stiffly and moulded into figures of Mary and Joseph, the Infant Jesus, of inn-keepers and the luxuriant Wise Men, in their elaborate turbans and exotic gifts.

There is still room for non-Christian traditions. Italian children love to welcome the Befana, an invisible old witch who comes to visit their homes and bring them presents on January 6th. All through the weeks leading up to Christmas the children diligently compile list of toys they would like to receive.   The list is carefully put up the chimney, or placed on the Christmas tree. Dolls, airplanes, game-boys, computer games are some of the gifts this old lady is to find and bring to the children. The legend goes that she was cleaning her house when the Wise Men called asking directions for Bethlehem. Too busy with her housework, she shooed them away. Only later did she realize that she had wasted time cleaning instead of joining them in their search for the Christ Child. She took her broom and went searching in vain for them. To this day, children will swear that the Befana is still on her broom, searching for the Infant Jesus, but satisfying herself with bringing presents to other children.

The most famous Italian must be, of course, Santa Claus! The jovial old man we recognize dressed in red with his cherry cheeks and snow-white beard is none other than St. Nicholas of Bari. Well, he was not actually Italian, but he was buried in Bari.   St. Nicholas was probably born in Patara in Asia Minor. He became a priest and was eventually elected bishop of Myra, the capital of Patara province. He may have been present at the Council of Nicea in 325,  and according to tradition he was martyred by the Emperor Diocletian around 294. He was buried in the cathedral of Myra. During the 11th century, the Saracens conquered Myra, and the citizens smuggled the relics of their bishop to nearby Italy, to be temporally hidden there until the Saracen threat was passed. Miracles abounded so that the citizens of Bari were unwilling to give back the saint’s relics, claiming him as one of their own. Among the miracles the saint allegedly worked was to provide three bags of gold as a dowry for three girls whose father could not afford to pay for their weddings. To this day, the three balls are the symbol of pawnbrokers.

This article first appeared in The Word (December 2002), a Divine Word Missionary Publication. 

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