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Buon Natale! Christmas in Italy
Part 6: Italian Christmas Traditions
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During Christmastime, one readily observable difference between Italy and the United States, for instance, is the lack of crass commercialism that threatens to swallow up and completely secularize the holiday. For instance, instead of writing letters to Santa Claus asking for presents (or, in the digital age, e-mailing Santa Claus), Italian children write letters to tell their parents how much they love them. The letter is normally placed under their father's plate and read after Christmas Eve dinner has been finished.

Italians have also adopted some of the northern European traditions as well. Nowadays, especially in northern Italy, a fair number of families decorate an evergreen tree in their home. Here are some other rituals, customs, and traditions practiced by Italians during the Christmas holidays:

Ceppo: The ceppo is a wooden frame several feet high designed in a pyramid shape. This frame supports several tiers of shelves, often with a manger scene on the bottom followed by small gifts of fruit, candy, and presents on the shelves above. The "Tree of Light," as it is also know, is entirely decorated with colored paper, gilt pinecones, and miniature colored pennants. Small candles are fastened to the tapering sides and a star or small doll is hung at the apex.

Urn of Fate: An old tradition in Italy calls for each member of the family to take turns drawing a wrapped gift out of a large ornamental bowl until all the presents are distributed.

Zampognari and Pifferai: In Rome and surrounding areas bagpipers and flute players, in traditional colorful costumes of sheepskin vests, knee-high breeches, white stockings and long dark cloaks, travel from their homes in the Abruzzi mountains to entertain crowds of people at religious shrines.

La Befana: Kindly old witch who brings children toys on the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6. According to the legend of la Befana, the Three Wise Men stopped at her hut to ask directions on their way to Bethlehem and to invite her to join them. She refused, and later a shepherd asked her to join him in paying respect to the Christ Child. Again she refused, and when night fell she saw a great light in the skies.

La Befana thought perhaps she should have gone with the Three Wise Men, so she gathered some toys that had belonged to her own child, who had died, and ran to find the kings and the shepherd. But la Befana could not find them or the stable. Now, each year she looks for the Christ Child. Since she cannot find him, she leaves gifts for the children of Italy and pieces of coal (nowadays carbone dolce, a rock candy that looks remarkably like coal) for the bad ones.

Holiday Season: On the Italian holiday calendar December 25 isn't the only special day. Throughout December and January there are a number of religious holidays to mark the season.

DECEMBER 6: La Festa di San Nicola - The festival in honor of St. Nicholas, the patron saint of shepherds, is celebrated in towns such as Pollutri with the lighting of fires under enormous cauldrons, in which fave (broad beans) are cooked, then eaten ceremoniously.

DECEMBER 8: L'Immacolata Concezione - celebration of the Immaculate Conception

DECEMBER 13: La Festa di Santa Lucia - St. Lucy's Day

DECEMBER 24: La Vigilia di Natale - Christmas Eve

DECEMBER 25: Natale - Christmas

DECEMBER 26: La Festa di Santo Stefano - St. Stephen's Day marks the announcement of the birth of Jesus and the arrival of the Three Wise Men

DECEMBER 31: La Festa di San Silvestro - New Year's Eve

JANUARY 1: Il Capodanno - New Year's Day

JANUARY 6: La Festa dell'Epifania - The Epiphany

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