CHRISTMAS TRADITIONS IN NAPLES
Christmas, the best known and most celebrated celebration in the world. Although the atmosphere of Christmas is similar in almost all the nations of the world, every country has its own traditions. I’m from Naples and therefore, for those who love this city, I can tell you how Neapolitans live today this Catholic celebration. In Italy, every city is managed independently by local and regional government. An accurate, honest and forward-looking management leads to have more economic local resources, and therefore more money also for recreational activities and entertainment. The current crisis, unfortunately, also affects any municipality that are forced to avoid expenditure considered unnecessary. The city of Naples has never invested much money in decorating streets and squares for Christmas, and this year even less. Thus, apart from the glittering decorations of the shops, visitors who are in Naples now, will not find a city so lit up and lively. However, there are some classic Christmas markets, and for those who love the crib, can not help but visit the small alleys of San Gregorio Armeno, because the art crib in Naples, as well known, is ancient. Throughout the Christmas period, there will be events and initiatives to promote visits to museums (like the Archaeological Museum Nazionale in Naples, Capodimonte National Museum, Royal Palace of Naples, Castel Sant ‘Elmo or Certosa di San Martino), guided tours, exhibitions, shows and other events.
Living In the suburbs, we often live and share little these initiatives, and here the atmosphere of Christmas is even less visible. For a Neapolitan what differentiates Christmas from other days is the menu. Here the shops are used to display their wares outside, on the sidewalk, and more in these days. During this period the greengrocers enrich their stores with exotic fruits, nuts, pine cones, fruit in season, and apart from cauliflower and broccoli, no one can miss the various vegetables useful to prepare the traditional “meat soup” which is the “typical “dish of the Christmas’ day. Fishmongers show oysters, smoked salmon, live eels, and all kinds of seafood, especially “vongole”, because the “spaghetti with vongole” is the traditional dish of Christmas’s eve. Another store that is “highly visited” these days is the pastry shop. For a Neapolitan is not Christmas without “rococo” and “struffoli.” Ditto for “Panettone” and “Pandoro”, two other classic Christmas cakes that every supermarket has filled the shelves. Panettone is a typical dessert of northern Italy and apart from the classic one made with raisins and candied fruit, there are now different types, chocolate, liqueur, almond, etc., and gift boxes with bottles of spumante.
It is not a customary to exchange Christmas’ gifts in any family, while children have to wait for the “Befana” to get some toys. Older children receive some gifts for Christmas, but generally it is a piece of clothing or money to spend at their own leisure.
Holiday that brings more happiness here, is perhaps the New Year. We Neapolitans feel more the passage of time and old age that inexorable advances, and for this, another New Year’s Eve, that sees us still healthy, deserves to be spent in joy. In addition to the classic lunch with friends and family in the night, after having uncorked and toasted with a bottle of sparkling wine, many Neapolitans love to “shoot” the New Year’s fireworks. In truth we hear “rumble” of explosions already during the days of Christmas, and once at every street corner there were stalls selling fireworks. From long, many of these “firecrackers” of anonymous origin are prohibited, and today you can find only a few stalls selling Made in China “petards”. Around these parts, there are many fireworks factories, and so at midnight it is not unusual to hear someone that “shoots” firecracker of a certain power, that sometimes do buildings shake. Even today, unfortunately, by the news of the day after, we hear of people who are injured because of these firecrackers. The arrival of the New Year is greeted with the explosion of fireworks that people light up and throw out of windows or balconies. Once there was also the custom of throwing down from the balconies “old stuff”, such as plates or chairs, but fortunately this “bad” habit that made all the roads impassable and dangerous, is decreased. However, at least in towns and populous districts of Naples, it is not convenient to walk the streets at midnight on New Year’s Eve. Many people like to spend New Year in nightclubs or restaurants, and those needing to reach friends, after spending the New Year at home, usually do it and go out when fireworks are over. It is a night of debauchery, to be passed in the company of friends, and especially young people attend to so-called “veglione” (coming from the term veglia=wake, meaning all night-dances), at home or in clubs. To kill time and wait for midnight, family do games like the traditional “Tombola”, a sort of bingo. Because of the crisis, nowadays an old Neapolitan nursery rhyme could still be in fashion, it says: “mo’ vene Natale, nun tenco denare, me fumo na pippa e me vaco a cuccà” (is Christmas now, I have no money, smoke a stub and go to bed).
The “Befana” is a woman, old and ugly, and is a witch. She is often represented as a figure flying on a broom at night and, bad or not, is the one that brings gifts to the children of southern Italy. As with Santa Claus, children write a letter to the Befana, with gifts they would like to receive. Once, as in all the traditions, the arrival of the Befana was more felt by children, but today, she has been replaced by Santa Claus. In the final analysis, for children is important to receive gifts and little care who is bringing them. Since the Befana is a little madcap, once it was custom that she had to hide the gifts for the home, and in the morning every child had to go in search of the gifts, ransacking every corner of the house. Another custom here is the Christmas stocking or “Befana stocking” as we call it. The Befana, apart from bringing toys, transformed a simple sock, left next to the letter, in a colourful sock full of candies and chocolates. Today, on the day of Epiphany, every engaged couple exchange a stocking full of goodies.
There are many old rhymes about Befana, and one is the following: “La Befana vien di notte, con le scarpe tutte rotte, col vestito alla romana: Viva viva la Befana!”, (Befana comes by night, with broken shoes, with the dress to the Roman Hurrah, hooray Befana). Depending on the piece of coal’s size (made of sugar) that children find in the stocking, each of them will know how much he/she has been “a bad child” throughout the year…. and how each letter worthy of respect, in the end of the letter each child writes… and this year I promise to be a good child…..