Eight weird and wonderful traditions which still take place in Italy over Christmas

Good witches with bad faces and good hearts

In Italy, they’re still not that big on Bobo Natale (Father Christmas). For most children, Christmas is all about La Befana - a good witch who visits children on January 5th.  Allegedly, she was an old housekeeper who was visited by the Three Wise Men, invited to come along to look for Jesus but declined because she was busy cleaning. However, once she spotted a seriously bright light she got an extreme bout of FOMO and decided to go out and hunt for baby Jesus herself, but never found him. Today she flies over Italy looking for baby Jesus, dropping off presents to small Italian children instead.

You will be forgiven for having forgotten this passage from the bible. 

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Witch racing in Venice...

Such is the national obsession with La Befana, that in Venice (where La Befana obviously arrives by boat), they host an annual witch race, which sees five ‘old witches’ row boats around the canal, in a race to get to the giant stocking hanging off of the Rialto Bridge. All witches must be over 55, which is apparently the age at which you can feasibly look like an old witch.  

Befana's regata

Shepherds and bagpipes..

In Naples, ‘zampofnari’ are bagpipe wielding shepherds dressed up in sheepskin vests, leather breeches and dark wooden cloaks. They parade around the city and surrounding villages, stopping to perform to each nativity scene and shrine to the Madonna along the way.

As someone who has spent quite a bit of time in Naples, I can confirm this cannot be a short exercise - there are an awful lot of shrines in Naples.


Explosive dancing (literally)...

 In Abruzzo, usually on the 26th December, the ‘Ballo della Puppa’ takes place, to mark the feast of St Barbara. This is essentially a giant exploding woman- some young chap climbs into a large papier-mâché  mannequin of a woman laden with fireworks and dances about to folk music whilst fireworks blow off of him in a very un-risk averse pyrotechnic show. Yes, whilst he is inside it. 

I'd like to thank...

As well as writing to Bobo Natale and Le Befana, Italian children will often write a letter to their parents, thanking them and telling them how much they love them. Letters are usually decorated beautifully, presented on Christmas Eve and read out over Christmas lunch, in a strange and un-subtle ‘my children love me more than yours do’ dinner table performance

 A midnight ski...

In Val d’Aosta it is quite 'the done thing' to indulge in a midnight ski on Christmas Eve, which will see hundreds literally ski down an Alpine peak into Christmas day by torch-lit procession.

Thousands of Nativity scenes 

 In Italy, they LOVE a nativity scene or ‘presepe’. Nativity scenes have been a treasured tradition since Francis of Assisi first introduced them in the 1200s,  with most churches and families erecting theirs on December 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. These range from intricately carved figurines - to entire villages adorned with life-size figures - to live nativity performances. I’ve included some personal favourites below. 

Intricate presepe - house

Intricate presepe - house

Life-size presepe - rural 

Life-size presepe - rural 

Life-size presepe - Sicily

Life-size presepe - Sicily

Intricate presepe - Naples 

Intricate presepe - Naples 

Presepe made entirely of butter

Presepe made entirely of butter

A communal hot toddy...

8. In Val d’Aosta (lord they love a christmas tradition) they encourage the consumption of a drink not dissimilar to mulled wine - coffee, grappa and spices- via a vehicle called 'la Coppa dell’Amicizia' (the cup of friendship). It's a large vessel carved from wood and fashioned with a series of spouts, which is passed around family and friends to sip from. Very communal. 

La coppa dell'Amicizia

Any other local Italian Christmas traditions which spring to mind? Let me know here or on social! 

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