I know. I’m a month late with this post, but it’s still January, so I don’t feel too bad about it.
This year, I spent Christmas in Italy. My family came to visit me for the holidays, but they didn’t arrive until a few days after Christmas, so I got to experience a traditional Italian Christmas with my landlady and landlord.
I’m not sure what exactly I expected, but it actually wasn’t that different from Christmas in America. I’m more familiar with the Christmas traditions of southern Italy, thanks to my mother’s family, than I am with the Umbrian Christmas traditions. There were no twelve fishes on Christmas Eve in Assisi, and there was much more red meat than my family would normally eat for Christmas in America. In America, we probably wouldn’t pop champagne and eat panettone—a Christmas cake with nuts and candied fruit—on the basilica steps immediately after midnight Mass either. Here in Italy, there really are twelve days of Christmas, and America only has one Santa Clause.
After Christmas, I went to Rome to meet my family, and we traveled around Rome, Florence, and Pisa for a week. And everywhere we went, the Christmas festivities continued. We saw crèche sets not only in every church and piazza but also in many store windows. We saw one that was made entirely of pasta, and another in the basilica in Pisa that included a looping audio track of a baby crying, Mary humming, a rooster calling, and cattle lowing. Restaurants continued to serve Christmas specials, and people continued to wish each other “Buon Natale“—Merry Christmas. New Years in Florence demonstrated more of the Italians’ festive spirit, as people set off fireworks in the streets all night and well into the next day.
At the end of our trip, we returned to Assisi, where we rounded off the twelve days of Christmas with a fabulous Christmas concert and the celebration of Epiphany on January 6. Italians celebrate Epiphany like a second Christmas with a big meal and La Befana—the Epiphany witch—who comes down the chimney and fills children’s stockings with candy if they were good and coal if they were bad. La Befana is basically a second Santa Clause, because Italian children also hang stockings for Papà Natale on Christmas Eve.
We celebrated Epiphany by visiting Gubbio, a small town on the top of a mountain about an hour from Assisi. Gubbio is called the Christmas town, because it has the world’s largest Christmas tree. Actually, Gubbio is the world’s largest Christmas tree, because it’s the whole mountain that is decorated to look like a Christmas tree. We spent the day exploring the town, walking up and down the steep, narrow streets. When it began to get dark, we drove down the mountain and then stopped to watch the largest Christmas tree in the world light up in the perfect finale to a beautiful Christmas.