St. Nicholas Tradition: San Nicola (more information)
Highlighted Custom: Presepio (Manger Scene)
Throughout the Christmas season in Italy, hundreds of different presepi, or manger scenes, are displayed. (The word presepio comes from the Latin word praesaepe, meaning "enclosure", "crib", or "manger". In large cathedrals, visitors can view life-size scenes and many include animated figures of camels, horses, and everyday people who might have had an opportunity to bring gifts to the Christ Child.
|This life-sized Nativity scene and Christmas tree in the Piazza san Pietro mark the Vatican's annual Christmas celebration outside of St. Peter's Basilica. Photo by Joe Beynon.|
There's a sweet children's book, Room for a Little One: A Christmas Tale, by Martin Waddell, that gently tells how, one after another, Kind Ox tells homeless animals who are passing by to come inside because "there is always room for a little one here". Finally the tired donkey arrives with Mary and Joseph and is told the same thing when Mary asks, "Where will my baby be born?" The illustrations by Jason Cockcroft are incredibly detailed and luminous.
Children and Christmas: Children write letters to their parents, extending wishes for a wonderful Christmas celebration and promises that misbehavior will cease. The letters are read aloud at the dinner table and then are allowed to be carried up the fireplace chimney, in the heat of the crackling flames. As they watch their letters disappear, the children chant these words to the mythical character, Befana:
You are my lady,
You are my wife.
Throw something down to me -
A little orange or a pefanino
Or a small pice of pecorino.
The pefaninio is a small cookie shaped like Befana. Pecorino is a special kind of cheese. Befana was an old witch woman who refused to go with the Three Kings to Bethlehem because she was busy sweeping her house. Finally, after completing her work, she went to find the Christ Child and lost her way. The legend says she continues her search to this day for Baby Jesus, and on January 5, the night before Epiphany, Italian children leave their shoes by the fireplace, in hopes that Befana will come down the chimney on her broomstick and leave gifts for them.
The Legend of Old Bafana, written and illustrated by Tomie dePaola
Italian children also receive gifts on Christmas Day. Some believe the gifts are from Bambino Gesu, or Baby Jesus. Other think them from Babbo Natale, or Father Christmas. (In some areas of Italy, San Niccolò, or St. Nicholas, comes on December 6th and that is a day for gift-giving to children. Grandfathers dress up like the saint, giving presents or coal made of sugar if the children have not been good.)
Christmas Eve dinner: In an Italian home, this festive dinner may include baked eel, which might be up to four feet long! Of course, pasta will be served as well. A capon or small chicken stuffed with chestnut dressing is another option. For dessert, a loaf-shaped Christmas cake, panettone, is made with raisins and citron. If you're like me, you may have received a panettone and not known if your children would like it. Click here for a yummy panetton french toast recipe (with apples and cranberries).
Sources for my Christmas Around the World posts:
Mary D. Lankford's Christmas Around the World
|St. Nicholas Center: www.stnicholascenter.org|