Start of Christmas and year-end holidays in Italy stick to traditional dates

The first sign of the winter holidays, including Christmas, often start popping up in the United States as soon as Halloween decorations are taken down. While once the day after Thanksgiving signaled the frenzy of gift-shopping and adorning homes with Santas, snowmen, and pine-wreaths, the holiday season seems to be launching earlier and earlier each year.

Not so in Italy, where traditional dates on the calendar to mark the start of Christmas seem to be holding.

In Rome, it’s the pontiff in his white robes who kicks off the Italian capital’s holiday spree of shopping and festivities. The pope is driven through some of Rome’s poshest shopping streets, near the Spanish Steps, on the afternoon of Dec. 8, so he can pray before a statue of the Virgin Mary on the Catholic Feast Day of Immaculate Conception, which is atop a towering column. Like much in Rome, it’s quite a spectacle. Firefighters set up a tall ladder, and one of their ranks climbs it to place a garland of flowers atop the statue, the pope gives a small speech, and Romans applaud before darting down the block to begin hunting down presents for friends and family.

Milan beats Rome by a day. Dec. 7 marks the feast day of St. Ambrose, the fashion capital’s patron saint, and it is when Italian VIPs lucky enough to get an invite flock to La Scala Theater for the opera season’s gala premiere. The day is an official holiday for the northern city, which is also Italy’s financial hub, so schools and offices are closed, giving Milanese an early taste of their winter vacation.

In towns large and small, churches and often city halls layout creche scenes known as presepi, and each venue tries to outdo its neighbors in terms of figurines and accessories.

Naples is where many of these crèche figures are made, and although that chaotic southern city seems to celebrate something all year long, the crowds get thick in the alleys of the neighborhood where artisans make and decorate the crèche figures, with each year bringing new creations often spoofing politicians or honoring the latest sports heroes.

Italy’s Christmas and year-end holidays officially end on Jan. 6, when the Catholic church marks the Feast of the Epiphany, and school kids usually don’t have to resume classes until the next day or two. So many Italians take to the roads during this long break to visit relatives or relax in ski resorts or towns rich in museums and monuments.

There are lots of sweets and more gifts to open by families on Jan. 6 from north to south. Italian tradition holds that youngsters who have behaved will get treats from the Befana, a witch who arrives on a broom. Naughty children will find a lump of coal, so goes the tradition, although no one really loses out, since the coal lumps come in the form of dark-gray candies.

At the Vatican, there are a few more church ceremonies until nearly mid-January, so the Christmas tree and life-sized Nativity Creche scene stay on display in St. Peter’s Square long after Christmas trees come down elsewhere.