Italians love this season so much that they commemorate it for an entire month, beginning on the evening of December 7, when the townspeople make a huge bonfire in front of the fortress, to simulate the light with which the angels guided the Three Kings to the Holy Manger. The next morning, children wake up to find a small gift on their pillow, left there by the Holy Virgin.
The period between mid-December and early January was one constant celebration even in pagan Rome. It began with the Saturnalia, a winter solstice festival, and ended with the Roman New Year, the Calends. After Emperor Constantine adopted Christianity, instead of ending the holiday at the New Year, the celebration extended to January 6 when the Three Kings were believed to have reached the infant Jesus, and so the Romans, too, began to exchange presents on the Epiphany.
Today in Italy, Christmas trees are decorated, but the focal point of decoration is the Nativity scene. Italians take great pride in the creation of the manger, which was a sort of clever publicity stunt thought up in 1223 by St. Francis of Assisi, who wanted to involve the peasants in celebrating the life of Jesus.
The Ceppo,a pyramid shaped tree made of wood, was believed to have started in the Tuscan region of Italy. The tiered tree would contain three to five shelves. On the bottom shelf the family would display their treasured “Presepio” (crèche or Nativity scene). The remaining shelves would contain greenery, fruit, nuts and presents. The presepio would represent the gift of God, the fruit and nuts would represent the gifts of the Earth and the presents would represent the gifts of man. The top of the Ceppo would be adorned by an Angel, star or a pineapple, which represents hospitality. Some families would 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.”
Bagpipes are the most common Italian Christmas sound. The zampognari, the shepherds who play the bagpipes, come down from their mountain homes at Christmas time and perform in the market squares. The melodies played are adapted from old hill tunes. Modern zampognari wear the traditional outfits of sheepskin vests, leather breeches, and a woolen cloak. The tradition of bagpipes goes back to ancient Roman times. Legend says that the shepherds entertained the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem. Today, the zampognari perform their own private pilgrimage, stopping before every shrine to the Madonna and every Nativity scene.
Children in Italy believe in a female version of Santa Claus called La Befana, an old woman who flies on a broom and brings presents. According to Italian legend, Three Wise Men asked La Befana for directions to Bethlehem. La Befana was asked to join them but declined three times. It took an unusually bright light and a band of angels to convince La Befana that she must join the Wise Men, but she was too late. She never found the Christ child and has been searching ever since. On January 6, the Feast of Epiphany, La Befana goes out on her broom to drop off stockings filled with treats to all the sleeping children of Italy. Just as children in America leave milk and cookies for jolly Santa Claus, La Befana collects messages and refreshments throughout the night.