There are similarities and differences between Christmas in America and Christmas in Italy. The Christmas holiday originated with the birth of Jesus Christ on December 25, a day around the shortest day of the year. Therefore, the main reason we celebrate the holiday is to celebrate Christ’s birthday. Another reason for celebrating Christmas includes the changing of the seasons and the days that will become short before becoming long again. The shortest day, not necessarily falling on Christmas, is Winter Solstice which happens also to be a Pagan, agricultural holiday to mark the changes is the seasons. Most simply, we celebrate Christmas across the world as inspiration to imitate ethical behaviors of Christ who unconditionally loved all men and women regardless of their beliefs or backgrounds.
Americans and Italians provide countless, special holiday games and activities for their children both at home and at school. Santa Claus, who is “Babbo Natale” in Italy, brings children surprises on Christmas Day. Almost every child receives some gifts on Christmas Eve and/or on Christmas Day. Children open up their packages or empty their stockings as family members enjoy watching them be joyful about the surprises. Children’s gifts range from candy to stuffed animals to other more sophisticated toys.
The exchange of gifts between family members and friends is the commercial aspect of the holiday which has been embraced by shop-owners of large and small businesses. Spending money in the stores stimulates the economy during good years of prosperity. One thing that differentiates America is that Americans receive more merchant’s catalogues in the mail each year to show which items will be available before and after the holiday. Not only do Americans enjoy finding deals on gifts, but they also go to nice sales the day after Christmas. Americans tend to look for the bargains, and now Italians have even begun their own “Black Friday” sales for bargains the day after America’s Thanksgiving. Reports are that Italians began most of their Christmas offers this year (2015) with decor in their shops right after Macy’s in New York conducted its annual Thanksiving Day Parade! In fact, I witnessed this to be the case in Novara, Italy!
People in Italy and the United States typically enjoy shopping for friends and family. There are many similarities between the gifts they give because both Americans and Italians like toys, electronics, clothes, and food for for friends and family. Too often some people forget that the meaning behind the season is that of expressing the simplicity of love. Instead, some people expect big gifts or try to see who gives the best and most expensive gift of all. Christmas becomes frustrating for those people without jobs who do not have any money to buy gifts, but some struggling people have been clever enough to bake cookies, to make arts and crafts, or to provide a free service for their loved ones instead of giving the traditional gifts. There is no doubt that both Americans and Italians occasionally forget the spirit of the season, that Christ would have recommended helping the poor and needy during the holidays. Regardless of one’s background, there is always the risk of forgetting the true meaning of Christmas while we try to out-perform our neighbors, friends, and families. The essence of the season is not about “looking good” or “fare bella figura.”
Both Italians and Americans like to sit around and eat a lot of food with their family members. Some families live amidst difficult financial times with too many bills, with high mortgages to pay, and without jobs. Fortunately for most there are joyous holiday meals on Christmas Eve and on Christmas Day when it is also a time of feasting, possibly even longer hours of feasting in the southern region of Italy than anywhere else. Many of the dishes served are similar and others are different. Most Americans and Italians have a main course of meat, some side dishes, salads, and a few sweets in the end. The food that is served differs within the regions of Italy with southern Italians who tend to eat more seafood while their northern counterparts eat more meat. Americans typically enjoy turkey, ham, and roast beef. That being said, diet habits on both sides of the ocean are changing so that more and more people are becoming vegetarians who serve plates such as Tofu’ and Vegetarian Lasagna. Although most Americans literally go crazy for spaghetti and pizza, those two dishes are not typically eaten on Chistrismas Day and are reserved for before and after the holiday.
Italians and Americans often enjoy helping the poor at Christmas time. This can be done by giving money at church and elsewhere. In American schools, students take up collections of food to be given to the poor. In part, this is wisely done to teach young children to have compassion for others. Italians give their donations to help the poor in the supermarket rather than at school, and there is the famous Communitá di Santo Egidio that helps people in Italy at Christmas time. Fortunately, the American branch of the Salvation Army rings its bells each year in front of the grocery stores to help anyone in need to obtain a warm coat to wear, some shoes, clothing, and food. Countless Americans in churches regularly donate food and there are even shelters for the homeless people. In some parts of Italy, Santa Claus tells stories and gives gifts to any child who will show up for the reading event.
Most people would agree that the true meaning of Christmas is to be unlike Scrooge and more like Saint Francis. People should help all of those in need, regarldess of their origins. This message is emphasized by Pope Francis and other leaders with strong moral values. Catholics try to emulate the kindness of the Saints who were not worshipped but, rather, observed for their great acts while both Protestants and Catholics alike follow the teachings of Christ and the various books of the Bible. People from other faiths, even spiritual non-believers sense the need to help others during Christmastime as the main point in such a widespread holiday is to love fellow humans and to respect the world in which we live as did Christ. Few would argue against the notion that supporting humanity and nature is appropriate.
Italians are fortunate that they get to eat many variations of Panettone, a big cake that often has fruit and vanilla in it. That same cake is now sold in American stores, but the versions found in Italy tend to be more delicious. Such a cake can be easily baked at home in America with a good recipe that utilizes baking soda and/or baking powder. Alternatively, Americans eat tons of fruit cake which is also delicious if one purchases the right brand, one such scrumptious brand being that of Collins Street Bakery in Texas!
Italians extend the national holiday to the day after Christmas, Santo Stefano, a day that has been an official holiday since 1947. Although Americans generally do not pay much attention to Santo Stefano’s feast, most of them are still off from work the day after Christmas, unless they work in the retail market and offer sales to the vacationers. On the day of Santo Stefano, Italians enjoy another special meal as well as a nice passaggiata or walk around town with family. It is a great time for long family discussions or visiting either the mother’s or the father’s side of the family. Italians are so fortunate to visit markets, to see tiny parades, and to see nativity displays such as the ones found in the small museums of the nativity known in Italian as presepi.
Both cultures display lights in their homes and around town. For Americans it often becomes a festival-of-lights competition. Perhaps some of the most famous American lighting can be found at Rockefeller Center in New York. Italian lighting tends to be done by the city council or town in which one lives. There is more lighting in big cities like Rome or Florence where the streets are filled with tourists. Certainly, almost all people have trees in their homes as well as some lighting around the trees. Americans display more real candles than Italians do, and one of the great American past-times has been to go out and cut real evergreen trees (that were raised for that purpose) each year. Cutting the tree down was done with a parent or grandparent in a pioneer’s tradition. In Italy, trees are more scarce so they are typically fake trees that are re-used from year to year. Murano glass from Venice makes excellent Italian ornaments or decorates the home year-round in the form of lamps and small sculptures.
Italians are lucky that this celebration continues until the “Befana” comes on the day of the Epiphany in January. Between the night of the 5th and 6th of January, the Befana carries candy to the homes of the children in Italy. The name “Befana” is actually another way of saying Epifany but in a folkloristic and secular sense of the word. Depictions of the Befana are much like those of the American kitchen witches that are quite popular in the States. In some small towns, an elderly woman actually dresses up like the Befana to amuse the children. The legend goes that she assisted shepherds to find the Christ Child when he was born. This legend does not concur with the Biblical teachings, but it is a beautiful secular touch, much like Santa Claus.
Americans are usually back in school by Epiphany Day, but American children would probably also enjoy such a celebration with candy and stockings! Many American children at least have the opportunity to study the Befana in their elementary classes since they enthusiastically try to learn more about Italy. In fact, I have observed that many Italian-Americans in the Atlanta area do continue to celebrate the Befana in one way or another with their grandparents who immigrated to the States.
In both Italy and America, the Christmas holidays are mainly about praising God and his son Jesus, with the spirit of the season being that of kindness and that spirit of people sharing precious times with their relatives. The result is that citizens of Italy and America try to be nice to one another in anticipation of a greater heavenly realm while making this world a much better place. We all share the tradition of gazing upon those artistic nativities with Baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph, Angels, and Shepherds in them! Angels, bells, wreaths, and candles remain the shared symbols of Christmas time with Christians and others acknowledging the beauty of a small child who grew up to be an excellent example of how we should live with love for fellow-humans across the globe. May some fine Italian and American traditions stimulate peace and goodwill on earth! These shared festivities are for all people’s of the earth who care to visit two fascinating countries as their Christmas Holiday destinations!