Here you find a brief summary of the main symbols of the Italian Christmas festivities, such as the Christmas tree, the Stella di Natale and the presepe.
The Christmas Tree
A Christmas tree, usually an evergreen conifer such as a spruce, pine, or fir, or an artificial tree of similar appearance, is a tree that is decorated and associated with the celebration of Christmas.
Tree worship was common among the pagan Europeans and survived their conversion to Christianity in the Scandinavian customs of decorating the house and barn with evergreens at New Years to ward off the Devil and of setting up a tree for the birds during Christmastime.
However, the modern Christmas tree originated in western Germany. The main prop of a popular medieval play about Adam and Eve was a “paradise tree,” a fir tree with apples hanging on its branches that represented the Garden of Eden. The Germans set up a paradise tree in their homes on December 24, the religious feast day of Adam and Eve. They hung wafers on it (symbolizing the host, the Christian sign of redemption).
In a later tradition, the wafers were replaced by cookies of various shapes, and candles were often added. In the same room stood the “Christmas pyramid,” a triangular construction of wood with shelves to hold Christmas figurines that was decorated with evergreens, candles, and a star. By the 16th century, the Christmas pyramid had merged with the paradise tree, becoming the Christmas tree.
By the 18th century, the custom became widespread among the German Lutherans, but it was not until the following century that the Christmas tree became a deep-rooted German tradition.
Introduced in England in the early 19th century, the Christmas tree was popularized in the mid-19th century by the German Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria. The Victorian tree was decorated with toys, small gifts, candles, candies, and fancy cakes that hung from the branches by ribbon and paper chains. Taken to North America by German settlers as early as the 17th century, Christmas trees were at the height of fashion by the 19th century. They were also popular in Austria, Switzerland, Poland, and the Netherlands. In China and Japan, Christmas trees, introduced by Western missionaries in the 19th and 20th centuries, were decorated with intricate paper designs.
Blown-glass ornaments were for sale in Britain and the United States as early as the 1870s. Many were produced in small workshops in Germany and Bohemia, which also created decorations made from tinsel, cast lead, beads, pressed paper, and cotton batting.
The first to decorate a Christmas tree in Italy was Queen Margherita in the second half of the 19th century in a room of the Quirinale, one of the three current official residences of the President of the Italian Republic. Her fashion spread quickly across the country.
In the early 20th century, Christmas trees experienced a moment of great diffusion, gradually becoming present in most of the homes of citizens in Europe and North America. They come to represent the symbol of Christmas, probably more common on a global scale.
Stella di Natale
Like the fairy-lit tree and nativity scene, the bright red flower known as the Stella di Natale is synonymous with Christmas in most Italian households.
The poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima) is a plant species of the diverse spurge family that is indigenous to Mexico and Central America. It is particularly well known for its red and green foliage. It derives its common English name, poinsettia, from Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first United States Minister to Mexico, who introduced the plant in the United States in 1825.
Mistakenly, many think that the coloured parts of the plant are the flowers, when they are actually coloured bracts or modified leaves. The “flowers,” or cyathia, are the yellow centre of the bracts, which can range in colour from their familiar flaming red to pink, orange, pale green, cream, white, or marbled.
The plant was originally native to Taxco in Mexico. The Aztecs used its milky sap in medicines and its leaves in making dye. On his arrival in Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City) in November 1519, the Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortez realised that Montezuma, the last Aztec king, who used these flowers to decorate his palace, had them transported to his capital by caravan as they would not grow at a high altitude. Soonafter, the Spanish missionaries would baptise the plant as the Stella di Natale, because not only was it at its full splendour at Christmastime, but the star-shaped leaves call to mind the star of Bethlehem, and the crimson colouring, the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.
The Confederazione Italiana Agricoltori has estimated that more than 20 million stelle di natale will be purchased during the Christmas holiday season. This makes it a business worth 210 million euro, with Italy, after Germany, the second largest producer and market for these plants in Europe.
Today, the plant has many names besides Stella di Natale and pointsettia, such as etoile d’amour (“star of love”), as it is known in France, noche buena (“Christmas Eve”), as the Mexicans and Guatemalans call it, and la corona de los Andes (“crown of the Andes”) for those in Chile and Peru.
But regardless of the name, in Italian homes, shops, and local markets, the richness of the Stella di Natale, its colour and its velvety foliage, will brighten up what can often be a cold and wintry Yuletide.
The Nativity Scene
The Nativity scene, also know in Italian as presepio or presepe, is the special exhibition, particularly during the Christmas season, where art objects represent the scene of the birth of Jesus. Saint Francis of Assisi is credited with creating the first nativity scene in 1223 in a cave near Greccio, Italy, and involved real people and animals to cultivate the worship of Christ, having been inspired by his recent visit to the Holy Land where he had been shown Jesus’ traditional birthplace.
Nativity scenes exhibit figures representing the infant Jesus, his mother Mary, and Joseph. Other characters from the nativity story, such as shepherds, sheep, and angels, may be displayed near the manger in a barn (or cave) intended to accommodate farm animals, as described in the Gospel of Luke. A donkey and an ox are typically depicted in the scene, as well as the Magi and camels belonging to the Magi described in the Gospel of Matthew. Several cultures add other characters and objects that may or may not be biblical.
Different traditions of nativity scenes emerged in different countries. Hand-painted santons are popular in Provence. In southern Germany, Austria, and Trentino-Alto Adige, the figurines are handcut in wood. Colorful szopka are typical in Poland.
Distinctive nativity scenes and traditions have been created around the world and are displayed during the Christmas season in churches, homes, shopping malls, and other venues, and occasionally on public lands and in public buildings.
The Vatican has displayed a scene in St. Peter’s Square near its Christmas tree since 1982, and the Pope has for many years blessed the mangers of children assembled in St. Peter’s Square for a special ceremony.
In the United States, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City annually displays a Neapolitan Baroque nativity scene before a 20 feet (6.1 m) blue spruce.