As a girl I was lucky enough to enjoy Christmas celebrations in Italy, on visits from Australia to spend time with my nonna and aunties. It was such a contrast to my experience of the sun and sand and heat of the Aussie Christmas! It just seems right to celebrate Christmas with crisp, cold, wintry days, all rugged up and enjoying open fires! At nonna’s home we decorated the large fir tree on Christmas Eve, all together, and the gifts were discovered later that evening, having been left by ‘Bambin Gesu’– Baby Jesus. Back then Father Christmas, or Babbo Natale, was quite an alien concept. Of course, in the intervening years this has changed, and good old Santa is as ubiquitous in Italy as many other parts of the world.
Once the tree was decorated, and a fine supper was shared, we all got ready for the Vigilia di Natale – Midnight Mass – a wonderfully festive celebration at the local church. Singing Christmas hymns at full volume was fun as a child, though they were quite different to the English carols we sang back in Melbourne!
A key part of the tradition in Italy is the creation of the presepio , the nativity scene, and Naples provides the best and most numerous public examples each year. But throughout Italy, every church, and many town squares, has magnificent examples. In our part of Italy, Friuli Venezia Giulia, we actually started celebrating on December 6, Festa di San Nicolò, and small gifts were given to children daily, placed in your shoes at the end of your bed.
I can’t recall details of the meals we shared, but some familiar dishes are included here. Traditionally on Christmas Eve a light meal without meat is prepared; on Christmas Day a family feast at lunchtime features many wonderful dishes, and then on the following day, San Stefano, there is another lunch for more distant relatives or friends. I do remember the yummy special Christmas cake, Gubana. The most popular Italian Christmas cake available in the UK is the Panettone, delicious for breakfast or with a glass of prosecco.
The culmination of the Christmas celebrations is Epiphany, January 6, celebrating the arrival of the Wise Men at Bethlehem. In some Italian families they reserve the gift giving to Epiphany eve, and sweets are brought by La Befana – a good witch on a broomstick.
Around the streets in Rome and other towns, zampognari and pifferai, bagpipers and flute players, usually wearing traditional costumes of sheepskin vests, knee-high breeches, white stockings and long dark cloaks, entertain people at religious shrines and in shopping streets. They originally came from their villages in the Abruzzi mountains.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the many and varied customs just in one country is that people celebrate the same joyful occasion using traditions that have evolved over time. In Italy, the Catholic Church has had great influence over the nature of celebrations, and unlike the law, there are no right or wrong ways to enjoy your festive season. In our global village a lot of these traditions are breaking down, sad to say. But the law just goes on and on, and grows and grows!
For our students of Roman Law, you may have come across the Roman festival of Saturnalia, a week of festivities celebrating the winter solstice. It is said by some that this is the foundation for the extended Christmas celebrations favoured by the Italians, which once lasted from December 8 to January 6. perhaps some of the LawBod’s books in Roman Law (Floor 2, Wing) will provide the legal framework for Roman festivals?
After the joys of natale, or saturnalia, you may need to return to the LawBod to do some research into Italian law. Our collection of Italian law books is extensive, and can be found on Floor 3 at shelf mark Italy; the collection includes legislation from 1959 to 2006, all the relevant and up to date Codes, and many leading journals and some case law as well. The monographs, which start at Italy 510, include some English language texts amongst the extensive and broad Italian collection.
In Italy, Natale (‘Christmas’) is quite a common surname, as you will find if you search for it on our wonderful Italian legal database resource, De Jure . Oxford users need to go to our Weblearn site to retrieve the password to the database. The extensive collection of caselaw (Gurisprudenza) covers the central and regional courts and tribunals. You can also search legislation (Fonti Normative) for central and regional laws, as well as EU law, and the Official Gazette. There is a good collection of Italian legal journals (Riviste)in full text, pdf format, and access to video interviews with leading lawyers and academics on issues in the law. Of course, the database is only available in Italian.
To navigate through the numerous free sources of Italian law, there is no better starting point than the Italian Law LibGuide produced at the LawBod . This will provide you with links to quite an extensive collection of free legal resources for cases as well as legislation. And a handy guide to Italian law has been produced by our friends at NYU/Globalex – Guide to Italian Legal research and resources on the Web. It provides links to free resources.
Not a lot about Natale, but if you are researching Italian Law, many goodies for the festive season.