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The very roots of our modern Christmas were born in Italy. Christmas, the Feast of the Nativity, was decreed by Emperor Aurelian in A.D. 274 to take place on December 25th of each year. Although many biblical historians believe that the actually birth of Jesus took place some time in the Spring, early Roman Christian's felt it important to create a feast day that coincided with the many pagan celebrations had always taken place during the winter solstice. The celebration of the birth of the sun soon became the celebration of the birth of the Son.
The nativity scene, a popular symbol of Christmas throughout the world, also has its roots in early Italian history. The first nativity scene, the presepio, was created by artist Giovanni Vellita in the village of Greccio in the year 1224. The piece was created at the request of none other than St. Francis Of Assisi. The presepio quickly became embraced as a holy symbol of Christmas when St. Francis said mass in front of Vellita's creation the first time.
The season of Christmas begins 8 days before Christmas on December 17th and lasts until the Epiphany (also known as "Little Christmas") on January 6th. The eight days before Christmas are known as the Novena and are often marked by children going door to door singing and giving recitations. Unlike the posadas common in Latin American cultures that symbolize the journey of Mary and Joseph in search of shelter, the Italian pastorals honor the journey of the shepherds to the manger.
Although dietary restrictions no longer play a central role in Catholic faith, many Italians still observe a strict fast from sundown on December 23rd to sundown on December 24th,. During the twilight hours of December 24th, candles or the traditional Yule log (which must burn through New Year's day), are lit and prayers are said around the family manger scene (the presepio) and a delicious feast is enjoyed before midnight mass.
Because the regions of Italy are so diverse, it is difficult to identify one traditional Italian Christmas feast, but certain foods remain common. Fish remains a common ingredient, as older church doctrine limited the eating of meat on certain holy days. Most Christmas sweets contain nuts and honey, said to honor the fertility of the earth and make for a sweet new year. Panettone is a sponge cake studded with candied fruit - much lighter than the dense fruitcake concoctions that common in other countries! Nougat candies (torrone) and a rich gingerbread (panforte) are also very popular.
La Befana is Italy's answer to Santa Claus, although she arrives on the eve of the Epiphany instead of Christmas Eve. Legend has it that the Three Wise Men had stopped at La Befana's home asking for directions to the manger where the Christ child had been born. La Befana had no idea who they were in search of, and suspiciously declined to accompany them when the offered to let her join them. Rethinking their offer after they left, she decided to join them but became lost. She stopped every child who crossed her path and gave them treats in the possibility that one of them was the baby Jesus the three strangers had spoke of. And every year she continues her search for the Christ child she missed seeing, and she continues to leave treats for good children along the way!