The Christmas season notably revolves around the specific Christian holiday of Christmas, but in Italy there are several other notable festivals and events during the holidays season aside from the day that is central in the minds of Americans. In Italy, however, one might be surprised to discover that Christmas is not even the central event, as unlike in other countries, children in Italy hang their stockings on the eve of Epiphany, in January, which marks the end of the Christmas season.
The Festa di San Nicola kicks off the holiday season on December 6 and honors the Christian saint Nicholas, who is the patron saint of shepherds. Celebrated in different areas around Italy, San Nicola celebrates Saint Nicholas, whose parents died when he was young but left him a fortune behind. Nicholas used that money to help those in need. He is remembered in particular for a story of him giving a poor father with three daughters bags of gold for their dowrys so that they could be married. The festival is celebrated differently according to the town that has chosen to embrace it; for example, Narni, in Umbria, celebrates the day by hosting a medieval-themed street market and street performers. In other towns a big pot of beans is cooked and then eaten ceremonially.
The Celebration of the Immaculate Conception occurs on December 8 and is an important holiday for Catholics. A public holiday, it commemorates the fact that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was a virgin when she became pregnant and gave birth to him. Many Italians mark the occasion by attending church. In Rome, there is a notable celebration led by the pope, who lays a wreath at the statue of the Madonna at Piazza Mignanelli. In Florence, the Fierucolina dell’Immacolata, an art and food fair, is typically held in Piazza Santissima Annunziata.
La Festa di Santa Lucia is celebrated in many Italian towns on December 13, and commemorates the saint Lucy, who is commonly shown with her eyes gouged out. A massive celebration in Sicily involves a parade which carries the saint in a golden coffin to the Church of Santa Lucia; she is returned on December 20 to her crypt, and the festival ends with fireworks.
Christmas Day is celebrated with friends and family and possibly the attending of a religious service, particularly for Italy’s many Catholics. The day after Christmas is St. Stephen’s Day, which is a continuation of Christmas for most of Italy. Secular ideas of Christmas have spread to Italy, so it is not unreasonable to think that an Italian child might await the arrival of Santa Claus, traditionally Italian children hung their stockings on January 6, the Epiphany.
The Epiphany marks the arrival of the three kings to worship baby Jesus, and on this day Befana, a witch riding a broom, delivers presents to all the good children of Italy. Epiphany also marks the end of the holidays season, after which work and school both resume normal schedules.