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Christmas in Italy


Italy, home of Vatican City and the Catholic Church, celebrates Christmas with manger scenes, sacred music, special foods (such as eel for dinner), and holiday markets. Children ask Babbo Natale for gifts. On Epiphany, Befana the witch brings candy…or coal.

Complete Video Script

Rome. This is home of the Vatican City… headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church and some of Europe's most sacred Christmas traditions.

For centuries, pilgrims have hiked from all over Christendom to this great city. Domes and ancient obelisks still serve as markers lacing together relics and sacred stops, including the tomb of St. Peter — marked by the greatest dome anywhere.

And through the ages pilgrims have stopped here at the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. The faithful believe the original planks from Jesus' crib are in this ornate container.

And here in the capital of Catholicism, each Christmas lovingly constructed manger scenes, called presepi, pop up all over town.

St. Francis of Assisi is credited with assembling the first manger scene in 1223. He used it as a tool to teach people the story of the first Christmas. Since then in the creative teaching style of St. Francis, manger scenes often put Bethlehem in a local context.

Instead of the Middle East, Italians have long set the Holy Family right here - in Italian settings. St. Francis knew that by putting Jesus in a place people would recognize - their own neighborhood — the faithful could relate more easily to the story of his birth.

And presepi range from the very traditional to the very surprising - like this one that imagines the nativity in an Eskimo village.

The ultimate manger scene is back on Rome's ultimate square — St. Peter's is where the pope celebrates Midnight Mass each Christmas Eve.

For Roman families there are more than just manger scenes to see. For centuries this lively square, Piazza Navona, has hosted a boisterous village-like holiday market that stays busy until Epiphany in January.

The Christmas season in Europe stretches for well over a month - not to maximize shopping season but to fit in the season's many holy days: Advent starts four Sundays before Christmas Eve. Then comes the Feast of St. Nicholas is on December 6th, Santa Lucia day is on the 13th. And Europeans don't wrap things up on December 25th. The 12 days of Christmas stretch from the 25th through January 6th, that’s Epiphany, the day the Three Kings finally delivered the gifts.

In Italy, on Epiphany, La Befana, a popular Christmas witch, flies over the rooftops filling children's stockings with candy or… coal.

Between visiting their manger scenes and Christmas witches, many Italians are shopping for their big Christmas Eve dinner. When it comes to a festa, Italians like to buy fresh and local… and lucky Romans enjoy an abundance of farmers' markets. La Vigilia, the traditional Christmas Eve dinner, calls for all the trimmings - here in Rome, that's lots of veggies… and a nice big female eel!

As anywhere, Christmas in Rome is a time of giving. The spirit of charity is especially alive in this neighborhood, which has come together for a special holiday meal. At the church of Santa Maria in Trastevere, tables have replaced pews and the poor are enjoying a feast prepared and served by the community. It's a joyful occasion and by all accounts those doing the giving feel as blessed as those they feed.

Outside of Rome, in villages in regions such as Tuscany, Christmas celebrations are a little more rustic. The festivities, while low-key, are memorable.

During a busy season that sometimes feels overwhelming, village life can be refreshingly simple. These jovial friends are playing an old game. The idea is to toss the panforte, the local fruitcake, close to the edge of the table without having it slide off.

(Men throwing cake and speaking in Italian.)

These children are flip-flopping the gift-giving tradition. They're delivering another Christmas treat — panettone - a rich brioche made with raisins and citrus — to older folks who have no family nearby. While providing a bright spot in this grandma's day, the child experiences the joy of giving.

(Girl giving treat, kissing woman, speaking in Italian.)

And today the children have another important errand. It's time to post their letters to Babbo Natale, the Italian version of Santa Claus. This special mailbox mysteriously appears each Christmas…

Sacred music and prayer infuse this tranquil landscape. Here at the 15th century abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore, reclusive monks celebrate their faith in a timeless fashion… as if one with the communities they serve.

(Monks singing.)

And in this town the people are doing a dress rehearsal for a precepio vivente, or, living nativity. On Christmas Eve in this simple cloister they'll recreate the town of Bethlehem on that holiest of nights.

In the countryside, you’ll appreciate how sacred traditions have deep roots. Here in this medieval Tuscan hilltown, villagers stack neat pyramids of wood for great bonfires. The lighting of the fires is a signal to villagers - dressed as shepherds - to come and sing old carols.

(Villagers singing.)

It's a reminder that through the ages Italy's humble shepherds entertained the faithful as they gathered by fires to warm themselves and await the arrival of Christmas.