Yuletide in Italy

By Mary P. Pringle and Clara A. Urann.


"O'er mournful lands and bare, without a sound,

Gently, in broadening flakes, descends the snow
In velvet layers.
Beneath its pallid glow,

Silent, immaculate, all earth is bound."

-Edmondo de Amicis.


Italy! the land of Dante, Petrarch, Bocaccio, Raphael, Michelangelo, and a host of other shining lights in literature and art!

Can we imagine any one of them as a boy watching eagerly for Christmas to arrive; saving up money for weeks to purchase some coveted dainty of the season; rushing through crowded streets on Christmas Eve to view the Bambino, and possibly have an opportunity to kiss its pretty bare toe? How strange it all seems! Yet boys to-day probably do many of the same things they did in the long ago during the observance of this holy season in historic, artistic Italy.

In November, while flowers are yet in bloom, preparations are begun for the coming festivities. City streets and shops are crowded with Christmas shoppers, for beside all the gifts that are purchased by the Italians, there are those bought by travelers and foreign residents to be sent to loved ones at home, or to be used in their own observance of the day, which is usually after the manner of their respective countries. So shopping is lively from about the first of November until after the New Year.

The principal streets are full of carriages, the shops are full of the choicest wares, and it is to be hoped that the pocketbooks are full of money wherewith to purchase the beautiful articles displayed.

During the Novena, or eight days preceding Christmas, in some provinces shepherds go from house to house inquiring if Christmas is to be kept there. If it is, they leave a wooden spoon to mark the place, and later bring their bagpipes or other musical instruments and play before it, singing one of the sweet Nativity songs, of which the following is a favorite.

"For ever hallow'd be
The night when Christ was born,

For then the saints did see
The holy star of morn.

So Anastasius and St. Joseph old

They did that blessed sight behold."

Chorus: (in which all present join)

"When Father, Son and Holy Ghost unite

That man may saved be."


It is expected that those who have a presepio are ready by this time to receive guests to pray before it and strolling musicians to sing before it, for the presepio is the principal feature of an Italian Christmas. It is made as expensive as its owner can afford, and sometimes much more so. It is a miniature representation of the birthplace of Christ, showing the Holy Family—Joseph, Mary, and the infant Jesus in the manger—or, more frequently, the manger awaiting the infant. This is a doll that is brought in later, around that each person in the room may pray before it, and is then solemnly deposited in the manger. There are angels, and other figures several inches high, carved in wood—usually sycamore,—prettily colored and introduced to please the owner's taste; the whole is artistically arranged to represent the scene at Bethlehem which the season commemorates. When the festivities cease the presepio is taken apart and carefully stored away for use another year.

During the Novena, children go about reciting Christmas pieces, receiving money from those who gather around them to listen, and later they spend their earnings in buying eels or some other substantial delicacy of the season.

The Céppo, or Yule-log, is lighted at two o'clock the day previous to Christmas, on the kitchen hearth in provinces where it is sufficiently cold to have a hearth, and fires are lighted in other rooms, for here as elsewhere fire and light are necessary adjuncts of Christmas. During the twenty-four hours preceding Christmas Eve a rigid fast is observed, and there is an absence of Christmas cheer in the atmosphere, for the season is strictly a religious one rather than of a social nature like that of Northern countries. At early twilight candles are lighted around the presepio, and the little folks recite before it some poem suitable for the occasion. Then follows the banquet, made as elaborate as possible. The menu varies in different parts of the country, but in every part fish forms an important item of food. In many places a capon stuffed with chestnuts is considered indispensable, and the family purse is often stretched to its utmost to provide this luxury, yet rich and poor deem this one article of food absolutely necessary on this occasion. Macaroni is of course the ever-present dish on all occasions throughout the country, and various sweetmeats are abundantly provided.

Then comes the drawing of presents from the Urn of Fate, a custom common to many countries. As the parcels are interspersed with blanks, the drawing from the urn creates much excitement and no little disappointment among the children, who do not always understand that there will be a gift for each one notwithstanding the blanks.

There is no evergreen used in either church or home trimmings, but flowers, natural or artificial, are used instead. Soon after nine o'clock the people, young and old, leave their homes for some church in which the Christmas Eve services begin by ten o'clock.

A Game of LotTo on Christmas Evening in Naples.


Bright holly-berries, sweet violets, stately chrysanthemums, and pretty olive-trees bedecked with oranges,—such as are bought by those accustomed to having a Christmas tree,—are displayed in shops and along the streets, nearly all of which are hung with bright lanterns. The people carry flaming torches to add to the general brightness of the evening, and in some cities fireworks are set off. From their sun-worshiping Aryan ancestors Italy derives the custom of burning the céppo, the love of light and fire, and many other customs. A few of these may be traced to Roman influence. Unfortunately many, very many, of the old customs, once so generally observed throughout Italy, are now passing out of use.

During the past few years several benevolent societies have distributed presents among the poor and needy at Christmas time, an event that is known as the Albero di Natale—The Tree of Nativity,—but little boys and girls of Italy do not yet know the delight of having a real Christmas tree hung with lovely gifts, such as we have in America.

At sunset on Christmas Eve the booming of cannon from the Castle of St. Angelo announces the beginning of the Holy Season. Papal banners are displayed from the castle, and crowds wend their way toward St. Peter's, the object of every one's desire who is so fortunate as to be in Rome at this season, for there the service is the most magnificent in the world. Every Roman Catholic Church is crowded on Holy Night with men, women, and children, anxious to see the procession of church officials in their beautiful robes, who carry the Bambino about the church for the worshipers to behold and kiss its robes or its toe. The larger the church the more beautiful the sight generally, although to a Protestant beholder the smaller churches with their enforced simplicity often prove more satisfactory to the spirit of worship.

But whether the officials are clothed in scarlet robes, ermine capes, and purple cassocks, and the walls covered with silken hangings of gold and crimson, with thousands of wax tapers lighted, and real flowers adorning the altar and organ pipes; whether the Madonna on the left of the altar is attired in satin and gleaming with precious jewels, and the presepio on the right is a marvel of elegance, with the Bambino wrapped in gold and silver tissue studded with jewels; or whether all is of an humble, simple character; the devout watch eagerly for the appearance of the Babe to be laid in the manger when the midnight bells peal forth the glad tidings of its birth. In each church the organ sounds its joyous accompaniment to the sweet voices of the choir which sings the Magnificat. The music is in itself a rare treat to listeners as it is always the best, the very best that can be procured. At two o'clock on Christmas morning the Shepherds' Hymn is chanted, and at five o'clock the first High Mass is held. In some of the larger churches solemn vespers are held Christmas afternoon, when the Holy Cradle is carried around among the audience.

At St. Peter's it is required that all the men present shall wear dress-suits and that the women be clothed in black, which offsets the brilliancy of the robes worn by the church officials, for even the guards on duty are in elegant red and white uniforms. About ten o'clock in the evening a procession of monks, priests, bishops, and cardinals, walking two and two, enters the vast building just as the great choir of male voices with organ accompaniment sounds forth the Magnificat. The procession is long, glowing in color, and very attractive to the eye, but the object of each Romanist's desire is to see the Pope, who, in magnificent robes, and seated in his crimson chair, is borne aloft on the shoulders of four men clothed in violet. On the Pope's head gleams his richly gemmed tiara and his heavy robes sparkle with costly jewels. Waving in front of His Eminence are two huge fans of white ostrich feathers set with eyes of peacock feathers, to signify the purity and watchfulness of this highest of church functionaries. Before His Holiness march the sixty Roman noblemen, his Guard of Honor, who form his escort at all church festivals, while Cardinals, Bishops, and others, according to their rank, march beside him, or near at hand.

With his thumb and two fingers extended in recognition of the Trinity, and at the same time showing the ring of St. Peter which he always wears, the Pope, followed by the ecclesiastic procession, passes down the nave between the files of soldiers, blessing the people as he goes.

Upon reaching the altar the Pope is escorted to an elevated seat while the choir sings the Psalm of Entrance. Later, at the elevation of the Host, the cannon of St. Angelo (the citadel of Rome, which was built in the time of the Emperor Hadrian) booms forth and every Roman Catholic bows his head in prayer, wheresoever he may be. At the close of the service the gorgeous procession is again formed and the Pope is carried out of the church, blessing the multitude as he passes.

New Year is the great Social feature of Yule-tide in Italy. Visits and some presents are exchanged among friends, dinner parties, receptions, and fêtes of all kinds are in order, but all interest centers in the church observances until Epiphany, or Bafana, as Italians term it, when children hang up their stockings, céppo boxes are exchanged, and people indulge in home pleasures to some extent. The wild hilarity of the Saturnalian festivities of former times is fast dying out, for the growth of cities and towns has not proved conducive to such observances, and only in the smaller places is anything of the sort observed.

Yuletide in Italy at the present day is principally a church festival.


Cometh the yearly Feast, the wonderous Holy Night,

Worthy of sacred hymn and solemn rite.
No harbingers of joy the olden message sing,

Nor gifts of Peace to waiting mortals bring.
Alone the thronging hosts of evil men I hear,

And see the anxious brow and falling tear.
The Age will bear no yoke; forgets the God above,

Nor duteous payment yields to parents' love.
Suspicious Discord rends the peaceful State in twain,

And busy Murder follows in her train.
Gone are the loyal faith, the rights revered of old—

Reigns but a blind and cruel lust of Gold!
O come, Thou holy Child! Pity the fallen world,

Lest it should perish, into darkness hurled.
Out of the laboring Night grant it a newer birth,

And a New Age to bloom o'er all the earth.
Circle with splendors old the brow of Faith divine;

Let her full glory on the nations shine.
Nerve her to battlings new; palsy her foes with dread;

Place the victorious laurel on her head.
Be Error's mist dissolved, and ancient feuds repressed,

Till Earth at last find quietude and rest.
O gentle Peace, return nor evermore depart;

And link us hand in hand and heart to heart!

Pope Leo XIII.

(Translated by H. T. Henry.)


This is taken from Yuletide in Many Lands.



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