Christmas is a very religious time in Italy.
A manger scene (presipio) is set up in each home.
The Christmas season is filled with much singing and music. The streets, shops and homes are decorated. Fruit shaped decorations are seen everywhere.
For twenty-four hours before Christmas people fast (do not eat). This is followed by Christmas Eve dinner called a Cennone. This feast includes fish (no meat), pasta, vegetables, fresh fruits and special sweets and cakes.
Special prayers and church services called "novena" last for nine days prior to Christmas. Mass is celebrated on Christmas morning.
In certain parts of Italy the children hang their stockings near the head of the bed. An old lady is supposed to visit each child and leave sweetmeats or coal in the stocking (depending whether the child has been good or bad.)
The Epiphany (Feast of the Three Kings), on January 6th, is the last day of Christmas celebrations.
The Legend of La Befana
A woman was busily sweeping her house when the Three Wise Men came to her door. They said they were seeking the new King who was born in Bethlehem. When they asked her to show them the way, she replied that she was much too busy. Later, she felt sorry that she had not helped the Wise Men, so she set out after them. She searched and searched, but she never found them. Because La Befana felt so bad, she continues to travel throughout the country at Christmas time, searching for the Christ Child.
Italian children believe they get a visit from La Befana , a kind but ugly witch. She is dressed in a long black coat with a black scarf tied around her head. She brings gifts to each child on January 6th, which is the Epiphany (feast of the Wise Men). They believe that La Befana flies from house to house on a broomstick, slides down the chimney and fills the stockings of the good children with gifts, but leaves a lump of coal for the bad children.