By Claudia Quesito

Christmas is widely celebrated in Italy. Not all families who celebrate are religious, but over time, the holiday has come to add a secular shade to its traditional meaning, so that it is observed by most Italians, religious or not. There are countless customs related to Christmas. Some of them are regional, some others are family variations, but there are at least two traditions that most families honor: the Christmas tree and the nativity scene.

The tree (l’albero di Natale) is traditionally decorated on December 8, the official kick-off of the holiday season, and it’s a triumph of lights, baubles, ribbons, fake snow, and toppers. The nativity scene (il presepe or presepio) is mostly honored by religious households, or ones with children, and has a long-standing and notable tradition in cities like Napoli. There, local artisans craft amazingly elaborate scenes, taking inspiration from traditional characters, but also from current events, cultural icons, and such, thus making il presepe a remarkable mix of sacred and profane.

Besides the Christmas classics, in some parts of Italy, there still are some unusual rituals, mostly related to the local history and customs. On Christmas Eve in Abbadia San Salvatore (near Siena, in Tuscany) and in Pescasseroli (in the Abruzzo National Park), for example, local people welcome the nativity with a big, pyramid-shaped fire.

In these historically rural areas, the fire used to symbolize the light at the end of the cold winter and, with that, new and possibly rich harvests in the spring. It’s all about the fire also in Tarceto, in the Udine province, where at the end of the holiday season (traditionally January 6), locals reenact nothing less than a Celtic tradition. Wearing fourteenth century-style costumes, they crowd into the streets and race on board (literally) flaming carts. Near Isernia (Molise), specifically in Agnone, people march twice (on December 8 and 24), carrying bundles of flaming twigs.

Another curious tradition is the landing of the witches (lo sbarco delle streghe) in Grado (near Gorizia). According to the legend, the witches, called varvuole, come during the night of January 6 to hoard naughty kids. Considering that in the rest of the country, mischievous children get sugar coal at the very worst, kids in Grado better be good all year round.

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