Italy, the country of sagre and ferie does not disappoint during the holidays.  From the cuisine, to the traditions or funny legends, Italy blossoms into the festivities.  From the north to the south, Italy’s Best presents the second of a 4-article series that will bring you the best of the best places to be, things to do, what to eat and even, what to hear in Italy this holiday season.  Getting started with articles 1 and 2, we present the most unique holiday traditions throughout Italy’s various regions.  Let’s see what the central and south of Italy has to offer.

Lazio – The very first Christmas mass was held in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. In 432 AD, Pope Sixtus III (the 44th pope) hollowed out a special nativity scene in the heart of the Basilica The church no longer looks the same but seeing its presepe takes you back to the early celebrations of Christmas in Italy. At midnight on December 24, the bells are rung to announce the start of Christmas.

Abruzzo – Known as the Trans-Siberian railway in Italy, the rail line from Sulmona to Roccaraso in the Alto Sangro Mountain area is famous for its pristine natural reserves.  The reason is very simple: it goes through the desolate but wonderful landscapes of Abruzzo. According to those who traveled it is the most scenic railway section of Italy with glimpses that, during the winter season, are tinged with white recalling the typical landscapes of Siberia. On the occasion of the Christmas holidays, every year the special Christmas Market Trains and a Living Nativity Train depart.

Via San Gregorio Armeno, Naples Italy

Campania – A strong presepe theme will emerge in this region. Tucked inside the medieval streets of a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Christmas market at Castellabate on the Cilento coast feels like walking around a living presepe. If you visit Naples’ Via San Gregorio Armeno, the workshops are in full swing and have their pieces filling the streets. Most of the serious clay pieces are truly works of art, handmade with handmade clothing too. But you can find some fun modern political pieces, famous sports figures as well as the traditional Italian people.  Perhaps the most original tradition of all is on the Amalfi Coast. In the Grotta dello Smeraldo (Emerald Cave), where colossal 10-meter stalagmites protrude up fromthe sea, a scuba diver delivers the Holy Child to a ceramic presepe (crib) inside the cave on Christmas.

Calabria – Santa Lucia, or Saint Lucy, whose name means “light” in Italian, is a Sicilian saint who died in Syracuse in the early 300s. Although she was born in Sicily, Santa Lucia is adored by Calabrians, who created prayers and proverbs in her honor particulary on her feast day, December 13th. One of the most well-known proverbs related to Saint Lucy is: ‘E Santa Lucia a Natali trìdici juorni ci ha, ma si buonu cuntu ti fa’ mancu dùdici ci nn’ha. Italian translation: Da Santa Lucia a Natale vi sono tredici giorni, ma se bene fai il conto non ve ne sono nemmeno dodici. 

English Translation: From Saint Lucy’s day to Christmas there are 13 days, But if you count well, there aren’t even 12.

Saint Lucy by Domenico di Pace Beccafumi, 1521

Confusing as it may be, the proverb is referring to the time when Calabrians predicted the following year’s weather by assigning a month to each of the 12 days that passed between Saint Lucy’s Feast and Christmas Day. Favorable weather on December 14 meant January would be a nice month, rain on the 22nd, for example, meant sour weather was in store for September.

Puglia – The first few days of December host the arrival of the zampognari (men who play the zampogne, an instrument similar to the bagpipes) who travel to Gargano from Abruzzo or Basilicata. They arrive in groups of two or three, clad in their typical capes and regional costumes. The two “mystic” shepherds, one old and one young, surround a group of celebrating children, playing their allegre novene (joyful songs), and at night they gather in the Grotta dell’Arcangelo (Cave of the Archangel) to play traditional shepherd melodies.

 Sicily – This living nativity scene in Custonaci, near Trapani, weaves together craft and play. The actors are not actors but real craftsmen who still own and carry out their professions in and around Custonaci. The cobbler in the scene can repair your shoes in real life!   The barber might just do your New Year’s Eve look.

A Zampognaro



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