Buone vacanze! A glimpse at Italy’s winter festivals

A precursor to its dazzling Carnival, the last quarter of the Italian calendar is rich with cultural heritage rooted in religion and tradition, cultivating an interest spanning the global stage.

At this time of the year, Italy oozes with festivities. Although some date back centuries, other adjacent jamborees are on the rise and taking different forms. Ark Republic discovers some of the country’s most celebrated fiestas during the winter as the solstice nears.

On any given major boulevard, vivid lights decorate the evening skies. From populous Roman cities to smaller villages, the townspeople in Italy are shaking off their two years of remaining mostly indoors with public revelries. Because Italy houses the Vatican, the small sovereign state that serves as the center of the Roman Catholic church, Christmastime is a treasured season executed with the utmost Italian flair.

Withal, recent celebrations are no longer locals-only. Now travelers across the world trek to Italy to marvel at its exotic traditions. Much of the allure is the “turn-up” merriment fused with community celebrations earmarking how Italians cherish two things: family and food. This is why every mercado is bursting at the seams days before the country shuts down for Christmas. And it does shut down.

To expand the season, over the years immigrants have added their own additions. In the popular tourist-city of Florence, the West African community of Gambians created social gatherings at community centers or clubs, Mohamed told Ark Republic. For Eritrean and Ethiopian migrants who are Coptic Christians, Christmas is celebrated twice. The first is the Gregorian calendar of the Catholic church Christmas holiday in December. Next, is their traditional celebration of Christmas in January according to the Coptic calendar. 

Of other importance, knowing and respecting tradition sits at the core of most Italians. Some can be quite terse to the unknowing outsider on etiquette, culture and history. Henceforth, it is always good to know before you go as one of the growing number of visiting celebrants. Plus, it is highly recommended to learn some basic Italian phrases too. Capisci?

Kaia Shivers, an American who lived in Italy for two years during the pandemic, enjoys one of the many colorful public displays along a ritzy promenade in Florence, Italy. Photo credit: Duane Reed

Inverno in Italia

Natale 

Most holidays during the winter period are cogs in a machine, Christmas being the main one. As a global treat, Natale in Italy is a much awaited family-friendly amusement. The holiday was once set aside to enjoy luxuries such as buffets for lunch and dinners. Fortunately, the practice persists and food access is boundless. 

Distinctive from other great festivals, locals go indoors for family get-togethers. Save for celebratory fireworks and sparkling Christmas lights in balconies or closed down stores, the streets are not as exciting. An exchange of gifts under the Christmas tree goes by without saying, meaning absurd shopping sprees. Ultimately, it would not be complete without the panettone, the extremely sugary iconic cake made of almonds and raisins.

The feast of Santo Stefano 

St. Januarius is not the only being revered in this period. On December 26, Saint Stefano is remembered in Christianity as one of the first seven deacons of the newly formed church, and as one of the first martyrs. According to Christianity, he was outspoken about his religious beliefs. The Jewish religious elders accused him of blasphemy against God and falsely accused him of preaching against the Mosaic Law and the temple. For this, he was stoned to death right after Jesus was crucified. 

However, over the years, change is inevitable. Presently, the day is seen as a boxing celebration or as an extension of Christmas.

Capodanno

The universal day to turn over a new leaf can barely be defined as “Italian”, however celebratory customs vary worldwide. Regardless, New Year’s day is undeniably a day of merry. In the South of Italy, it is customary to throw old objects or water outside the window. “Away with the old and in with the new” is the day`s mantra. In depth, throwing away the old equals to kicking out the evils in order to anticipate a prosperous future. 

Lentils — a symbol of money — is part of the day`s food menu. “It brings fortune”, Giovanna Signorelli from Floridia — a small town in the South of Italy — tells Ark Republic. In her 80s, she says that some of these traditions stuck with a few as the young enjoy more vigorous festivities. 

All in all, family dinners with friends are a major part of the New Year. Not forgetting fireworks on New Year’s eve as many assemble in central parts of different cities for the final countdown.

Italians purchasing fish from the pescadero before holiday. Photo credit: Jan Gemerle of Unsplash

Festa della Befana

La Befana vien di notte…con le scarpe tutte rotte. La Befana comes at night … with broken shoes. Ever heard of the Christmas witch? Seen as a closure to Christmas, the urban legend roots back to the birth of Jesus and the three wise men. 

Apparently, the three wise men lost track of the guiding star on their way to visit baby Jesus. As a result, they stopped at an old woman`s house later famously known as La Befana. Conspicuously, she loved to clean. 

They sought her help but she denied. Later in the tale, pursued by guilt, she follows the wise men holding a broom. Similar to them, she lost sight of the star. An angel appeared bestowing magical powers to the broom, which eventually she used to fly. Still, she could not find the path to Jesus` house. Following, she decided to give gifts to young children whilst flying. 

Similar to Santa Claus,  children leave out red stockings for the “La Befana,” hoping to awake on the morning of January 6 to some candy. 

The Carnival

If you are one to go gaga, cool your heels as carnevale awaits you. Characterized by gaudy costumes and alter ego masks, this major celebration is of the utmost annual anticipation. Parades and masquerade balls are the day’s lineup as outside concerts and music intensify the parties. 

Traditionally, this two week holiday in mid-February falls on Fat Tuesday, the last Tuesday before Lent.

On the whole, so many phenomenal Italian festivals are in existence, some more recent than others. Undoubtedly, Italy’s cultural influence is undebatable, a fact evidenced by the global cultural adaptation. It is a well known fact that religious Catholic traditions sprout from the Vatican in Rome. Likewise, every year, thousands flock to Italy to experience these foreign beliefs.

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