The Italian, Russian and Spanish Traditions of Christmas

By Marah J. Morrison

When it comes to celebrating Christmas, countries other than the United States have their own ways of acknowledging it. Although there are some similarities in celebrating Christmas between the U.S. and other parts of the world, the differences may be eye-opening.

Matthew Saborse, a part-time Italian instructor at Youngstown State University, said during this particular holiday, people get very creative with the decorations in the Naples, Italy region.

Saborse said some popular desserts Italians eat during Christmas include panettone, which is a sweet type of Italian bread, and torrone, a confection made of honey, sugar and egg whites with toasted almonds or other nuts shaped into a cake.

“On Christmas Eve, they have the Feast of the Seven Fishes,” Saborse said. “Family and friends all get together.”

Carla Simonini, associate professor of Italian at YSU, said there are regional variations when it comes to celebrating Christmas in Italy. She said many of the Italian-Americans in the U.S. are from southern regions of Italy, and a lot of what has come over into our country are Italian-American traditions.

“It used to be that Christmas Day itself was more of religious holiday,” Simonini said. “Things like Santa Claus and Christmas trees are there in Italy right now, but they aren’t part of traditional Italian society.”

Simonini said back in the day, the most important day when kids got gifts was Epiphany on Jan. 6. She said this was the day the Three Kings arrived and brought gifts to the baby Jesus.

“The legend behind that is that they passed by a woman, or a witch, called La Befana,” Simonini said. “She was busy sweeping, and she missed out on her opportunity to bring gifts to the baby Jesus, so she spent the rest of her days traveling around giving gifts to children.”

Simonini said La Befana is still a big part of Italian culture during Christmas, and presents would include fruit, candy and other small things. She said in Italy, people put out stockings for La Befana, similar to what people do in the U.S. for Santa Claus.

Alena Kirova, an assistant professor in foreign languages at YSU, is from Siberia, Russia. She said when she was born Russia was still the Soviet Union, so her country was atheist and didn’t celebrate Christmas very much.

“Russians celebrate Christmas according to the Julian calendar, which means that we celebrate it on the sixth of January,” Kirova said. “The most important holiday for all of the Russian people, and even still, is the new year.”

Kirova said the extent to which Russians celebrate the new year is the same to the extent on how people in the U.S. celebrate Christmas. She said people give gifts, and get together with friends and family.

“As for the Christmas itself, religious people go to church on the sixth of January,” Kirova said. “It’s mostly a spiritual holiday rather than gifts, friends and family.”

Assistant Professor of Spanish at YSU Gina Villamizar is from Colombia. She said she still goes back home every year to celebrate Christmas with her family and friends.

Villamizar said in the area of Colombia, people start to celebrate Christmas from Dec. 16 to Dec. 24 with La Novena, which is nine days before the birth of baby Jesus. La Novena includes private or public prayers for nine successive days or weeks.

“People get together, neighbors, the whole community that lives near your area, and all of the children,” Villamizar said. “That’s for the community, but for family, we have a special dinner and a party.”

Villamizar said in her family, their parties are loud, and her father dresses up as Santa, and gives presents to all of her family members. She said people also play music, which can sometimes be heard from neighbors as well.

“You hear the music, the laughter and everything,” Villamizar said.

Villamizar said Christmas in Colombia is very family oriented, and is her favorite time of year. She said she could not imagine being away from her family during the holidays.