In Italy, Christmas celebrations begin 8 days before Christmas day with a period known as the Novena, which is a series of prayers. During this time children dress up as shepherds, and go door to door singing, reciting poems and playing pipes and the householders give them money.
The man decoration is the nativity scene (presepio) and these are found in homes, shops and public squares. Sometimes the baby Jesus is not added to the scene until Christmas Eve.
On Christmas eve, people go to Midnight Mass, and afterwards the family gets together for a meal of fish or seafood. In some small towns, especially in the mountains, bonfires are lit (the Luminari) to keep baby Jesus warm.
One last Christmas Eve tradition is the Urn of Fate. Inside the urn are boxes for everyone in the family. If it has their name on, they open it; if not they put it back in. Some of the boxes contain small gifts, and some are empty, although there is at least one gift for everybody. Family members take it in turns to draw a box out of the urn.
On Christmas Day they have another special meal (there is no set Christmas meal in Italy – it differs from region to region) and Christmas cake (panettone).
The main day for receiving presents is January 6th. During the night of the 5th January, La Befana, a kindly witch, flies around on her broomstick leaving presents for the children.
Happy Christmas in Italian is Buon Natale and Father Christmas is Babbo Natale.
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Christmas lights start going up in towns from the end of November, or early December. Christmas trees are quite popular now, although the more traditional decoration is the nativity scene (known as a belén) which can be found in churches, public places and homes all over the country.
Christmas celebrations start on December 24th (Nochebuena) when families go to midnight mass (La Misa de Gallo) and then have a meal together. The meal itself varies from region to region but dessert tends to be sweets made of marzipan or turrón (nougat).
December 25th (El día de Navidad) is a quiet day. Families get together again for a meal, and they may exchange small gifts, but the real day for giving presents is January 6th, the day the Three Kings (Los Reyes) saw baby Jesus.
On January 5th there are processions all over Spain to celebrate the arrival of the kings. Traditionally they came by horse, but these days they may arrive by car or even helicopter! You can see a video of the three kings arriving by helicopter here. On the night of the 5th, children leave their shoes out, filled with straw and carrots for the kings’ horses, and in return the kings leave presents.
On this day there is also a special cake, known as Roscón de los Reyes, which is shaped in a ring. Inside is hidden a small charm. Tradition says that whoever finds it will be lucky for the next year, and they are also crowned king or queen for the day. Sometimes there is also a bean hidden in the cake, and whoever finds this has to buy the cake the following year!
Happy Christmas in Spanish is Feliz Navidad and Father Christmas is Papá Noel.
If you want to learn Spanish and you are based in Birmingham, you can contact me via my website for private Spanish lessons.
Related posts: How do they celebrate Christmas in France? How do they celebrate Christmas in Greece? How do they celebrate Christmas in Germany? How do they celebrate Christmas in Denmark?