Italian Language Blog

Papà Natale è brutto e cattivo Posted by on Jan 1, 2009 in Culture

When I was eight years old a new girl came to my school. One day, talking with her about regali di Natale (Christmas presents) I discovered with great astonishment that her presents were brought not by Papà Natale (Father Christmas) but by Gesù Bambino (Baby Jesus).

I had never heard of such a thing, and so we started arguing about who it was that brought the presents, Papà Natale or Gesù Bambino? To settle the matter we decided to go and ask our parents and they gently explained to us that we were both right because Gesù Bambino cannot deliver all the presents by himself so he needs a helper, Papà Natale. My friend turned triumphantly to me and declared: “I’m more important than you! I get Gesù Bambino to bring my presents, not his helper!” to which I replied: “Yes, but at least I’ve seen Papà Natale several times and I know he’s real. You have never seen Gesù Bambino for real and will never see him, because solo i bambini molto buoni possono vedere Gesù Bambino (only the really good children can see Baby Jesus)”.

Talking of bambini molto buoni, the daughter of a friend of mine doesn’t like Papà Natale because, according to her, he is brutto e cattivo (ugly and bad). So this year she wrote a letter to Gesù Bambino asking him not to send Papà Natale to her, but to come personally because she is una bambina buona (a good girl).


Gesù Bambino or Papà Natale usually leaves the Christmas presents under the albero di Natale (Christmas tree) in the living room. In another corner of the room you will often find a Presepe (Nativity) with la stella cometa (the star) above la grotta (the grotto, usually called the stable in English Nativities), where Giuseppe e Maria (Joseph and Mary) kneel around the empty mangiatoia (the manger, from the verb mangiare, to eat). Gesù Bambino, following the tradition of the Nativity story, is only placed in the manger on Christmas night. The Presepe is deeply rooted in Italian tradition, the first one having been created in 1223 in Greccio, Umbria, by San Francesco d’Assisi (St. Francis of Assisi). The Christmas tree on the other hand has only become popular in recent years.


I biglietti di Natale (Christmas cards) are not a big thing in Italy, it’s more important to get in touch with people directly, either by visiting or phoning them, therefore we spend a big part of Christmas Eve and Christmas morning visiting friends and family or talking on the telephone. Cards are considered a substitute to personal contact, so I was very surprised on spending my first Christmas in England to see people handing each other Christmas cards.

La Vigilia di Natale (Christmas Eve) is probably more important than Christmas day here in Italy. We have la Cena di Natale (Christmas evening meal) with the family and we eat and drink while waiting for the Messa di mezzanotte (Midnight Mass). The following day we eat and drink again at the Pranzo di Natale (Christmas midday meal) with other members of the family often at somebody else’s house. For example: if the Vigilia di Natale is spent with the husband’s family, the Pranzo di Natale might be spent with the wife’s family, and so on. As for the menu, we don’t have a typical Christmas meal here in Italy, but rather many regional or even family traditional meals. This year for the first time I even heard of stuffed rabbit as the main course! Probably the only two traditional elements of the meal are the tortellini in brodo  (tortellini in broth) for the first course, and Panettone with Spumante for dessert.

The arrival of the Panettone is the cue for young children to stand on a chair and recite la poesia di Natale (the Christmas poem). How well I remember the torment of that embarrassing experience!

After eating finchè non scoppiamo (until we explode) we go out for a stroll in the afternoon and then into a bar for a warming caffè or digestivo.

Buone Feste!

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  1. natasha:

    Great post as usual! In my travels to Italy, I have never heard “Presepe”, but “Presepio”, is that a regional form?

  2. Judith Pusateri:

    Thank you for your reply to my question regarding Christmas traditions in Italy. We only ate our Panettone today. We cooked it as “French toast” which was wonderful. I will buy another one and eat it regular though. It is delicious.

  3. eden:

    Hi, my very first day discovering this website and I am thrilled I did! I took a few moments to read article regarding Christmas in Italy and how the celebration varies from that of the US. Having been raised in a Boarding School by Italian Nuns, it brought back many fond memories for me and I personally want to say “thank you” for the post and I can’t wait for the next one.
    Like most of your readers, I aspire to become fluent in speaking Italian especially since that was technically my first language. And my thought personally toward my comment: simple! My first language will always be my first love & the “Italian” language will always have a special place in my heart

  4. Liz:

    Thank you so much for all your posts but now you have whetted my appetite to know what
    ‘ la poesia di Natale’ is? If already posted, my apology… I have not seen it. Thanks again.

  5. anthony:

    What about La Befana? My grandma said that’s who gives the gifts.

    I’m a new reader of this blog, what part of Italy are you from?

  6. Rollando Spadaccini:

    I have wondered for many years. For Christmas Eve, dinners in Italy, what are the traditional meals served? Or at least, what dishes on average from various regions of Italy that are traditionally served? My Father’s father came from Milan and lived in Bologna for many years before moving to the States. He had said the family had always served various fishes. So, while growing up here in Erie, PA, we always had several different fish dishes or anything related to the sea. Such as, lobster tails, shrimp, scallops, squid, snails, sardines, smelts, salted cod, oysters, sardines, etc. Plus there would be other dishes, such as salads, deli dish etc. One were always stuffed to the gills. Both of my grandmothers were from opposite end of Pisa. They also have told me various fishes were served as traditional meal or feast for Christmas Eve. But they prepared them a little differently from the other. Different it was but just as delicious. My mother’s father was of German descent. Now that was of a different ball game. The main dish for Christmas Eve was a meat that was available, either beef or poultry. A few side dishes of fish were served, but German style. So, as a boy, I was exposed to a wide variety of dishes. LOL! Today, my wife side of the family …. her father’s family is from the Naples area. And he is very strict with different dishes. When he heard about meat being served by my mother’s father for Christmas Eve, he felt slightly insulted. He said to me…” Rollando, you are mostly of Italian descent, a Catholic! How could you even sit down at the table on Christmas Eve when meat is being served?!?!” His voice got louder at the end of his remark. My wife was mumbling “Here we go again!”

  7. Rose Faherty:

    Thank you very much for your article about Christmas in Italy. My father came from Italy in 1921 and it only last year that we got to meet our family over there. They are wonderful people, however, we dont’ speak Italian so that is a problem. We are going to Italy in April to celebrate Easter with them. I would appreciate it if you could write an article about the Easter traditions in the south of Italy.

  8. Serena:

    Thank you everybody for all your nice comments. I’ll try to answer them all. Let’s start with the Presepe or Presepio: both forms were already present in Latin; according to my Italian dictionary Presepe is generally less common, but I looked in the leaflet published by the town council for the Christmas festivities and all the times it said “Presepe”.

    I published a “poesia di Natale” on the 24th December: “Natale by Giuseppe Ungaretti”. This is the most famous Italian Christmas poem, but there are many other poems more suitable for young children talking about Gesu Bambino and the sheperds, etc. simply, I can’t remember them.

    Yes, la Befana is very important in the Italian tradition and you’ll find out about her in a couple of days.

    On Christmas Eve we traditionally eat fish, like in the days preceding Sunday Easter, but as some of you have mentioned, there are many different recipes and variations on the same recipe.

    About Easter traditions in the south of Italy, I’m not from the south, I’m from Tuscany in the center, but I’ll try my best.

    Felice Anno Nuovo a tutti da Serena

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