Christmas starts in Italy on the 8th of December
the day of the Immaculate Conception. I found this out the hard way, when I lived in Italy with my husband and son. This was our first Christmas there and we were thrilled to find that there was no lead up to Christmas starting from Easter and gathering pace in August, like in the UK, where by the time December comes you are ready to murder the next person who plays a Christmas record!
We were taking our 5 year old son to school on the morning of the 8th, to find that the Fornaio was closed, so we couldn’t buy him his pizza bianca, the staple lunch for a young school boy. When we got to the school it was also to find that that was shut too. In fact the whole town was deserted. We phoned our friend, Vittorio, to find out what was going on and he said “it is the Festa della Madonna” - as if that answered everything!
A Religious Festival
Being Church of England rather than Catholic we had to go back home and look it up, to find that The Immaculate Conception is a catholic festivity and celebrates the conception of the Virgin Mary as free from original sin and it is now a holiday, with schools and offices closed. Pope Pius IX, in his papal bull defined this doctrine on the 8th December 1854 and is now observed in Roman Catholic Countries.
Italians mark the day with celebrations and processions and the towns are decorated.
Now, the day is more secular and it is the day when Italians put up their trees and Christmas officially starts!
In Rome the Pope leads the celebrations, starting the day before when the tree and Nativity scene in St Peter’s square are set up in readiness for the L'Immacolata the next day.
On the 8th December, the Pope says the Angelis on St.Peter’s square at noon and later in the day travels to the statue of the Madonna at the Piazza Mignanelli, next to the Spanish Steps.
The Fire Department helps then helps the Pope place a wreath of flowers around the Madonna’s outstretched arm!
At the top of the Country, Milan, also starts the celebrations on 7th December, when they celebrate the feast of Sant’Ambrogio, the city’s patron saint, which is uniquely Milanese.
A special Mass is held at the Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio. St Ambrose was the bishop of Milan at the end of the fourth century.
The city’s Christmas lights are turned on on this day and also the famous street market “Oh Bej Oh Bej” starts in the area around the Sforza Castle.
The name means “oh beautiful oh beautiful” in local dialect and according to legend, on 7th December 1510, Gianenetto Castiglione, delegate of Pope Pius IV was visiting Milan and so he could ingratiate himself with the locals, entered the city carrying boxes of sweets and the children greeted him with cries of “oh bej, oh beg”!!
And if that wasn’t enough to celebrate in this wonderful city, it is also opening night of the La Scala Opera House - one of the most glamorous nights of the year.
Every town and region has its own traditions and festivities and they are all unique to them.
In Tarquinia, Lazio, where we lived, they would stop all the traffic going into the town centre and lay red carpets up the middle of the cobbled streets. On the edges of the carpet they put little trees in pots covered in fairy lights. The effect was magical and these simple, perfect, decorations seemed to me to portray the meaning of Christmas so much more than the more flamboyant and gaudy decorations of the larger towns and Cities.
The fact, also, that we weren’t being bombarded with advertisements for things to buy and having that side of Christmas constantly thrust in our faces, meant that the real meaning of Christmas was so much more present - the religion, the people, the special feeling of that time of year. It helped us remember what Christmas is really about.