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Holiday celebrations, customs and traditions
Capodanno (New Year's, January 1st)
The New Year's celebration begins on December 31 with the standard 10 second countdown to midnight and fireworks. What makes the celebration a bit different in Italy is the food. Italians have a tradition of eating lentils on New Year's, as it is believed that they will bring money and good fortune. Italians also wear red underwear and throw away something old to keep away the bad energy of the previous year. These small changes could make an American celebration a little more Italian in flavor.
Befana (Epiphany, January 6th)
Similar to an American Christmas celebration, Epiphany is celebrated after the New Year on January 6. If you are big on Santa Claus and your kids believe in magic and fairy tales, then this holiday is a perfect opportunity for combining American and Italian traditions. Italians set out a large sock, or stocking, by the fireplace the night of the 5th so that the old woman named Befana, a female Santa Claus-like character, will come and fill it with sweets or presents if the child was good or charcoal if the child was bad. It is also customary to leave some milk and cookies for Befana to enjoy. Children can write letters to her requesting specific gifts.
Carnevale (Mardi Gras/Carnival, the evening before the beginning of Lent).
Although the spirit and the tradition are very different, Italians celebrate Mardi Gras or "Fat Tuesday" like Americans do Halloween. Everybody dresses up and children love it. There is no "trick or treat" or horror themes, however. The focus is on having fun dressed as something or somebody else. Elementary schools and kindergartens usually cease the typical daily lessons and allow the children to enjoy a day-long party on school premises. The typical sweets of Carnevale are the castagnole or the frappe. Similar to doughnuts and pastries, both are deep fried and very tasty. In the U.S., Mardi Gras has become popular as a celebration for adults, but you could throw a party for children to celebrate the day, especially if you have Italians or Europeans living in your neighborhood.
The way Italians celebrate Easter is not very different from the American way, but Italians typically enjoy chocolate eggs and sweet doves, a type of pastry, instead of chocolate Easter Bunnies because rabbits are not part of the symbolism of Easter in Italian culture. It is customary to put a surprise such as a toy in a chocolate egg, much to the delight of the children who receive them. Italian chocolate eggs with gifts inside them can be found at some American supermarkets and at specialty Italian grocery stores. This treat alone could lend a different flavor to the traditional American Easter.
Christmas (December 25th)
The mother of all holy days is actually celebrated in Italy pretty much the same as it is in the U.S., with Christmas trees and the exchange of gifts. Many Italian families like to create a nativity scene in their home, which is not as typical in America, but setting up the display could be a fun and creative project for the family, along with putting up traditional house decorations and Christmas lights.