Christmas in Italy

A woman looks at figurines of the nativity scene displayed in a stand at a traditional Christmas market in downtown Rome Some Italians love elaborate models of the manger scene like this one in Rome

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Rome correspondent David Willey tells of elaborate manger scenes, early midnight mass and New Year at the Pope's Hot Springs

What Christmas traditions are kept in Italy?

There's a north-south divide in Italy over Christmas traditions. Northerners are mainly tree people - the Christmas tree is a relatively late arrival in Italy from Northern Europe, but practically every town and village and family now has one.

David Willey and Fran Unsworth Willey, our oldest serving foreign correspondent, at his 80th birthday party, hosted by Fran Unsworth

And then there are the presepe or Christmas crib people who love their often elaborate models of the manger scene. Over the centuries these have morphed into huge nativity scenes with flowing streams, working models of artisans and farmers at work, lights, landscapes, and hundreds of wooden or terracotta or now - regrettably - mass produced plastic figures standing around.

An entire street in downtown Naples is devoted to the crafting and sale of these figurines, which are brought up to date each year. This year I notice there are models of William and Kate on sale to put in your presepe as well as those of famous footballers, politicians, musicians and pop idols.

In my village near Rome there is a living presepe with a sheep and a cow and some live chickens clucking around the life-size manger model. The atmosphere gets pretty ripe after hundreds of people have filed past and left a contribution to pay for this elaborate reproduction of the Christmas Crib - which was in fact invented in the thirteenth century by an Italian, Saint Francis of Assisi.

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The mass has been brought forward to 10pm to spare the ageing and frail pope a sleepless night”

End Quote David Willey
Does religion play a major part in the celebrations?

Millions of Italians go to midnight mass on Christmas eve. In the Vatican this year the mass has been brought forward to 10pm to spare the ageing and frail pope a sleepless night. Religious traditions are still strong, although regular mass-going is on the decline, as everywhere else in Europe.

What do people typically eat and drink on Christmas Day?

The main Christmas meal is eaten on Christmas Eve, and fish is traditionally served before the turkey or chicken or leg of lamb.

Where/how will you spend Christmas this year?

I shall be watching the Pope's Christmas Mass and reporting his Christmas Day speech as usual using my hi-tech internet link with Saint Peter's Basilica. My Christmas, for as long as I can remember, has been a lot of reporting of papal words of wisdom followed by a lot of eating and drinking. It's a wonderful time of year and if we are lucky there can also be bright sunshine around to light up our spirits as we prepare for an austere New Year.

How do the people of Italy see in the New Year?

New Year's eve is traditionally a time for firecrackers and throwing out your old junk, so you have to watch out for your head if you are walking through some of Rome's narrow streets.

I shall be spending New Year's Day morning swimming and relaxing at the Pope's Hot Springs in Viterbo, just north of Rome. It has become a family tradition to raise our glass of prosecco in a New Year toast while immersed in the rejuvenating, warm, hot spring water. The ancient Roman legions marching back to Rome to celebrate their triumphs used to bathe and cure their wounds in these very same hot springs.

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