Christmas the Italian way

Photo by John Leung

Christmas in Italy blends many traditions, says Stefano Gulmanelli: secular and religious, modern and traditional. It’s still a little bit about mass, but also about fun and family.

It’s about shopping and presents and food and getting together,” adds Gulmanelli, the Italian-Canadian president of The Dante Alighieri Society of Vancouver, a language school and cultural centre located in downtown Vancouver. “The perception from outside can be of a very religious country, but [Italy] has been changing in the last 30, 40 years. People may follow [traditions], but not because of the religious implications.”

This blending will be on full view here in Vancouver this month at events put on by the Italian community and at the Italian Cultural Centre to celebrate the Christmas season.

Bagpipes and befana

The “religious narrative,” as Gulmanelli calls it, does inform some Italian traditions. In the past, many Italians served fish for dinner on Christmas Eve.

“Eel in the south and codfish in the east and north,” he says. “Catholic[s] say you don’t have meat on Fridays.”

Nowadays, Gulmanelli explains, these traditions are fading and, instead, less religious traditions are taking place.

“Those who think in religious terms would still go for [fish]. [But now] the main dish would be pasta,” he says. “Every region has its own sauce. [Or] people might have pork leg with lentils, [which] mean money. The more lentils you eat, the more money you get.”

Some traditions do remain, though. Bagpipes, once the favoured instruments of shepherds, are often played in Italian squares at Christmas.

“It’s a common sound at this time,” notes Gulmanelli.

Scenes representing the birth of Jesus are on view as well.

“[Nativity scenes] are probably the most typical heritage of religious Christmas,” he says. “Even in non-religious families you [still have] a nativity scene − maybe instead of the Christmas tree. You have the donkey, a cow, the comet. It’s a kind of wishful thinking about how simple life used to be, [how] bucolic, everything in harmony.”

Nativity scenes are occasionally interpreted creatively, cla-rifies Gulmanelli.

“When the Naples [soccer] team had [Diego] Maradona, the great player, they had a statue of Maradona in the [municipal] nativity scene, to give it a touch of folklore,” he says.

One Christmas figure has shifted in and out of this religious narrative.

“Befana is the female personification of the old year. [Catholicism], instead of fighting this popular pagan character, brought it into the narrative,” Gulmanelli adds.

After giving directions to the three wise men and sending them on their way, Gulmanelli says, Befana regretted her decision not to visit the Christ child. Her search for Jesus is now a ceremony in which she visits every house and presents a gift to the children there. The ceremony is “quasi-religious,” says Gulmanelli.

“[It is also] the holiday that, 12 days after Christmas, closes off the whole period.” he says.

A time to be nice

Christmas in Italy lasts from Dec. 23 to Jan. 6. It’s a time of celebration. But it is also a time when people spend time with family.

“Especially in the north, because the weather is very much like Vancouver’s − it’s cold. It’s one of the days when you say let’s enjoy the house,” says Gulmanelli.

The Christmas celebration, which can occur either on the 24th or the 25th, can be a quiet family time.

“There is a line of thought that on the 24th there should be a dinner,” Gulmanelli explains. “[But] it depends what work you do, if you own a shop. Plenty of people celebrate at noon on the 25th. You have the first massive meal, then you stop for a while, board games and gifts, maybe a movie. Then at 8 or 9 pm, [it’s] back to the table [to] finish off what[’s] left. It’s like in other countries, it’s a time to be nice to one another.”