In Italy, the people fast, going with little or no food, the day before Christmas. At the end of the day, a celebration meal is eaten, in which a light Milanese cake known as panettone is featured. Families then hold a ceremony around the Prespio, a miniature Bethelehem scene complete with the Holy Family, shepherds and Wise Men, usually hand-carved from clay or plaster, and very detailed in feature and dress. An ox and ass are an important part of the tableau because legend states that these animals warmed the Christ Child with their breath. The scene is often set out in the form of a triangle and provides the base of a pyramid-like structure called the ceppo, which is a wooden frame arranged to make a pyramid several feet high. Tiers of thin shelves are supported by this frame which is entirely decorated with colored paper, gilt pine cones and miniature colored pennants. Small candles are fastened to the tapering sides and a star or tiny doll is hung at the apex. The shelves above the manger scene hold small gifts of fruit, candy and presents. The ceppo is the ancient "Tree of Light" tradition which became the Christmas tree in other countries. Some houses have a ceppo for each child in the family. While the mother places a figure of the Bambino or infant Jesus in the manger of the Prespio, the rest of the family prays. After this, the Christmas gifts are brought in and distributed from a large crock known as the "Urn of Fate," which contains empty boxes as well as presents, but always holds one gift for each person. At twilight, candles are lighted around the Prespio, prayers are said and the children recite poems. Italian children set out their shoes for their female version of Santa Claus...La Befana...to fill with gifts of all types, such as toys, candies and fruit. If the children have been good, their shoes are full of good things on Christmas morning but if they have been bad, their shoes are full of coal. Christmas Day itself is reserved for religious ceremonies and the Pope gives his blessing to crowds who gather in Vatican Square.
The traditional seasonal dish is Capitone, a large female eel, roasted or baked or fried, served with Magi cakes (small baked wafers). North of Rome, the favored food might be pork or sausage packed in a pig's leg and smothered with lentils, or turkey stuffed with chestnuts. Christmas sweets such as panettone (cake filled with candied fruit), torrone (nougat) and panforte (gingerbread) made with hazelnuts, honey and almonds, are also popular seasonal food items. As a general rule, all Italian Christmas sweets contain nuts and almonds. Peasant folklore states that to eat nuts favors the fertility of the earth and aids in the increase of flocks and family. In Ancient Rome, honey was offered at this time of year, in order that the New Year might be sweet.
A delightful but rapidly disappearing Italian custom is the ushering in of the coming festivities by the Piferari, or fifers. They descend from the mountains of the Abruzzo and Latium while playing inviting and characteristic tunes on their bagpipes, said to be reminiscent of the music played by the shepherds at the crib of the Christ Child. Another tradition is the burning of the Yule Log, which must stay alight until New Year's Day. Christian legend tells that the Virgin Mary enters the homes of the humble at midnight, while the people are away at Midnight Mass, and warms her newborn child before the blazing log.
For most Japanese who observe Christmas (only about one per cent), it is a purely secular holiday devoted to the love of their children and the giving of gifts. Nevertheless, stores and homes are usually decorated with evergreens during the season. The ancient Japanese priest-god Hoteiosho makes for an excellent Santa Claus because he has eyes in the back of his head and, thus, can easily watch how all the children behave. Christmas trees are decorated with small toys, dolls, paper ornaments, gold paper fans, lanterns and wind chimes. Miniature candles are placed among the branches and one of the most popular ornaments is the origami swan. Japanese children have exchanges thousands of these folded-paper "Birds of Peace" with young people all over the world as a pledge that war must never happen again.
The Christmas season lasts from December 16th through January 6th in Mexico. Mexican families look forward with much anticipation to the Posada on each of the nine nights prior to Christmas Day. The family members enact the Posada to honor the memory of the search for rooms by Mary and Joseph on the first Christmas Eve. They form a procession and go through the house, led by two children who carry figures of Mary and Joseph. At the door of each room, the children beg to enter but are refused. When they reach the room containing the altar, the wanderers are admitted. The figures of Mary and Joseph are placed in a tiny stable in a miniature Bethlehem. The figure of the Infant Jesus is not put into the Manger until Christmas Christmas Eve, the last night of the Posada This principal holiday adornment is called el Nacimiento (meaning Nativity scene). A decorated Christmas tree may be incorporated into el Naciemiento or set up elsewhere in the home. The purchase of a natural pine, however, represents a luxury commodity to most Mexican families and the typical arbolito, or "little tree," is often artificial...a bare branch cut from a copal tree or some type of shrub collected from the countryside.
A social hour follows the final Posada, during which the host or hostess invites everyone into the courtyard to help break the pinata. This is a brightly-decorated pottery crock or papier-mache figure (often shaped like a bull or a donkey) filled with gifts and candy. It is suspended from the ceiling, porch, roof or tree branch by a cord. The children are blindfolded and take turns trying to break open the pinata with a stick. When it bursts, gifts and candy scatter to the ground and the children rush to pick up the treats.
Children in Honduras also enjoy the pinata celebration, as do those in Guatemala, where the Christmas Tree tradition has recently joined the Nativity scene as a popular ornament due to the large influx of German immigrants. Gifts are left under the tree on Christmas morning for Guatemalan children but parents and adults do not exchange gifts until New Year's Day. Throughout the Christmas season in Guatemala, several religious statues are taken for an elaborate procession. At the rear of the parade is an image which represents God (although this white-beared man may also resemble a department-store Santa). Marimbas and chirimias accompany the procession. Christmas Eve festivities end at midnight with a Misa de Gallo, or the Mass of the Rooster. Manger scenes are displayed in churches and in public areas, although the image of the Christ Child is not added until Christmas Eve.
Flowers are typically used for Christmas decorations instead of evergreens in most Latin American countries where Christmas is celebrated during the warm season. The Poinsettia and Noche-Bueno are in full bloom in Mexico during Christmastime.
Most South American children believe that it is the Wise Men who bring them their gifts. Children in Brazil (where trees are sometimes decorated with tiny pieces of cotton to represent falling snow) and the Argentine find gifts in their shoes on Christmas morning. On the Eve of Epiphany, the twelfth day after Christmas, they leave water and hay on the doorstep for the Wise Men's camels. People go to church with their families at Christmas and then attend a family gathering. At midnight, after their meal, which usually consists of pork or turkey, accompanied by cider, beer or juice, they drink a toast and then the adults dance or engage in conversation, while the younger people go outside to watch firework displays.
Children in Bolivia receive their gifts on Epiphany while the people of Chile hold a fiesta on Christmas Day. This festival resembles the American county fair. Most Indians in South American Countries also hold a fiesta during the Christmas season. Beneath the Chilean Christmas tree, called a pesebre, little clay figures are displayed and Father Christmas is known as Viejito Pascuero.
In Puerto Rico, many families celebrate Christmas Eve with large suppers, followed by music and dancing. The children usually receive their gifts on both Christmas Eve and on the morning of Epiphany, January 6th. Nativity scenes are common in churches and public buildings.
Approximately two weeks prior to Christmas, people in Lebanon and elswhere in the Middle East plant seeds...chick peas, wheat grains, beans and lentils, for example...in cotton wool. The seeds are watered every day and, by Christmas, have shoots about six inches in height. These shoots are used to surround the manger in Nativity scenes. Figures are fashioned from brown paper and placed above the tableau. Traditionally, people visit friends on Christmas morning and are offered coffee, liqeurs and sugared almonds. Lunch is the most important seasonal meal, usually consisting of chicken and rice and Kubbeh, which is made of crushed boiled wheat and mixed with meat, onion, salt and pepper. The whole family gathers for the meal, customarily at the home of grandparents or the eldest son.