The very roots of our modern Christmas belong 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 the actual birth of Jesus took place some time in the Spring, early Roman Christians felt it was important to create a feast that coincided with the many pagan celebrations taking place in winter for 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 a holy symbol of Christmas, after St. Francis said mass in front of Vellita's creation for the first time.
The season of Christmas begins 8 days before Christmas day, on the 17th of December, 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, 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 is 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 so 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 Christ had been born. La Befana had no idea who they were in search of, and suspiciously declined to accompany them when they offered to let her join them. Rethinking about their offer after they left, she decided to join them, but got 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 spoken of. And every year, she continues her search for the Holy Child she missed seeing, and she continues to leave treats for good children along the way!