Buon Natale! Happy Holidays, Italian Style

The holidays are by far my favorite time of year; the fresh smell of pine needles, the sweet sounds of carolers, and the blatant overuse of lighted decorations leading to temporary blindness. It doesn’t get much better than when Santa comes to town.

But what’s it like in Italy? Do they have pumpkin spice lattes and peppermint infused…well…everything? Do they celebrate Black Friday with discounts on their discounts? Are there therapy groups for Italians who get overwhelmed with shopping or depressed by the thought of 48 hours spent with close family? What are these magical days like for our European friends?

Sadly, I have never spent an actual Christmas day in Italy. The holidays always seemed to call me back home. I was however in Florence once very late into December (the 22nd…) due to some very poor planning. It was two years ago and Florence had one of its worst snowstorms ever. Ok…”storm” may be an exaggeration. Being from the east coast originally, a little white powder on the ground has never deterred me from my daily activities. However, I woke up that morning to a city that was literally shutdown. After walking down to my favorite coffee spot, I knew I was in trouble when I saw that almost every museum in town was closed. There was not a lost tourist or frantic Florentine to be seen.

Above: firemen prepare to climb down the facade of Palazzo Vecchio. Below: they are greeted by their waiting fans.

Ironically, I had made an appointment the day before to take a tour of the ramparts of the Palazzo Vecchio (now a Select Study Abroad favorite…except we do it at night!). In my mind I figured the Palazzo, also the location of the seat of the city government, would surely be closed. Government employees would be the first to abandon their posts due to an act of God, right? Amazingly, it was one of the few museums still up and running. I wasn’t surprised when I showed up to learn that the supposedly “full” tour was well…a tour for one; me and the tour guide. I think she secretly hoped I’d tell her to forget about the whole thing so she could grab another coffee. Mi dispiace!I was not giving up this chance for a private tour. We climbed up to the top of the old government building to witness the most amazing sight I have ever seen. A Florence I barely recognized. As I peered past the medieval crenellations, the Duomo and the surrounding rooftops all stood covered in snow. All I could think was that I had wandered into a real life snow globe, Italian-style.

As if that weren’t enough, as I took my eyes off of the natural wonder in front of me I noticed something else. The tour guide and I were sharing the medieval castle ramparts with a group of happy Italian firemen dressed as Santa Clauses! Around their waists, harnesses with ropes anchored the fat jolly men to the top of the building. From the roof they repelled down to the ground all at the same time, like a brigade of Christmas soldiers invading a city to mercilessly spread holiday cheer. No. I am not kidding. Yes. I have photographic evidence. I would become a fireman in Florence just to have the chance to do this once a year.

I left only a few days later and was so happy to have caught not only a glimpse of those crazy city workers, but also the city of Florence in a way I had never seen it before. The city’s gorgeous Christmas lights all covered in snow was something that I will never forget.

See! Isn’t she nice!

Generally, the first thing for tourists visiting the country during this season to remember is that Christmas is really not the main event. It is a month-long series of smaller festivals, picking up pace on Christmas Eve, and culminating on January 6th with the Epiphany.

There is still Santa Claus (known as Babbo Natale or Father Christmas), but the real star is no man, but a woman known as La Befana. La Befana is a little old lady with a broom (we know what you’re thinking, but no, she is not a witch). She has many stories told about her, but they all have the same basic begininng. La Befanais believed to have given shelter to the three wise men on their way to find the baby Jesus.

While they asked her to join them, she declined (the reasons vary, though some maintain that she simply had too many house chores to do!). She later regretted her decision and set out to follow them to baby Jesus (again, the reason for this inspiration also varies from story to story…chiors of angels may or may not be involved). Sadly, she never finds him and is believed to still be looking to this day. On Chritsmas Eve, she goes out to give gifts to all the children, just in case Jesus is there. The naughty childen supposedly get coal or root vegatables (usually onions or garlic).

One of Florence’s main streets all decked out.

One of Select Study Abroad’s favorite restaurants in Verona is owned by a woman born on the Epiphany and the interior of the cozy space is literally dripping with Befanas on broom sticks. To the untrained eye she looks like a witch, but clearly, she is the good gift-bestowing woman, eternally searching for the little Gesu Bimbo.

One of the most remarkable things about the winter season in Italy is that most Italian cities are decorated with lights. This is by far my favorite part of the entire season since those little European streets can create such gorgeous vistas seemingly meant for Christmas lights. However, the main focus of the holiday decorations is usually the nativity scene or a creshe, also called the presepe. This is really just a large diarama of the birth of Jesus, typically with the three Magi in attendance at a small manger, also refered to as the Nativity. Almost every church will have a presepe and they are commonly alloted to the outdoor space in front of the church or in the many open piazzas.

My favorite creshe is easily the one at Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Not because it is beautiful or even quaint, quite the contrary really. It is more than a little tacky. In all fairness, this may be due to the fact that it is trying to do its job.

Saint Peter’s with its Christmas tree and Nativity scene.

Let me explain. Most nativity scenes use small figures, some of which are artistically interesting or inspired renderings of Mary and Joseph. The scene is holy, peaceful, and most importantly, beautiful. The nativity scene at Saint Peter’s is instead life-size with figures made to look as if they are real. This has the effect of making the bible scene eerily present, appropriate for a church whose main goal is to bring the bible to life. But, also oddly gaudy and at night…a bit creepy. Sorry! Just being honest. I mean, there are so many beautiful ones. C’mon, Pope. Get it together.

Saint Peter’s Square, as you would expect, is a major hub of Christmas festivities. Not the holiday bake-sale kind, more the religious church kind. Vatican City has a special midnight mass given by the Pope inside Saint Peter’s Basilica (VIP’s only, though there are large TV screens in the piazza for those in the square to watch along). Then, at noon on Christmas day, the Pope gives his blessing from his famous window overlooking the square.


Let’s conclude where I like to end all my blog posts, food. What do they eat during Christmas? Well the name of the game in this case is, panettone. This is a big kind of pound or bunt cake that you can buy boxed at any grocery store. They are always very tall – one source called them “cupola” shaped – and they often come with a packet of powdered sugar to sprinkle on top. However you buy it (with chocolate chips or without) it is a must-have at any holiday meal. It can be served with a hot drink or wine and usually with cream or marscapone cheese (perhaps some berries!) to give a bit of moisture to what is otherwise a somewhat dry cake. But really, more importantly than taste, panettone looks very festive. Like a Christmas tree to us, there is something about the sight of these cakes going out into the store windows that scream Christmas in Italy.

And now to bring us full circle – in more ways than one! Remember the image of the Duomo in late December, sprinkled in snow…Compare it perhaps to another image of the great panettone…do they bear any resemblance? YES! Exactly! Panettone is the key! Now we know where Brunelleschi, the architect, got the whole dome idea from!*

Rock solid proof!

He was such a ham! I wonder if those Santa firemen have ever repelled down the giant panettone at the other end of Florence? Now that would be a real sight on Christmas.

*Ok this is not a proven fact, but a theory I am seriously pursuing. If you have any further evidence please contact me at [email protected]

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