It is during this time of the year, the week before Christmas, that the magic of the holiday becomes even more evident in Italy. In fact, on Christmas Eve, the cooking aromas that fill your nose tell you that there is no other place that you can be or any other place that you would rather be, as long as you are surrounded by friends and family. The sky is crisp and the moon hangs low and bright. The urge is great to lift your hand as though you could touch the stars – all seem shinier and brighter, as if to say, ‘His birth is coming.’ Not far in the distance, white peaked mountains shine with the freshly fallen snow.
In the small towns of Italy, chimney smoke seems to tell tales, imbued with the fragrant scent of roasted chestnuts, biscotti and orange peels thrown into the fireplace. Everything seems poised in anticipation. Something momentous is about to happen. Women speak softly as they bake; while a grandfather tells stories to the children, as they ask, “Nonno, arriva davvero Gesù Bambino?” Grandpa, is Baby Jesus really coming?” He nods and thinks about when he was a boy and he ponders the cherished memories of his youth.
La Vigilia di Natale – Christmas Eve has come at last! The table is ready, the cooking done and plates of fish are placed on the center of the table. The Presepio is set up, although He is not in the manger yet. The tree is ready; maybe tonight Babbo Natale will come as well and then the celebrations begin. Family and friends sit around and enjoy what the tradition calls for – secret family recipes for the dishes that are only prepared on Christmas Eve are rediscovered. A magical night, la lunga vigilia – the long vigil.
Throughout the peninsula, families wait with generations of children, parents and grandparents playing la tombola. As the embers in the fireplace die out and the last piece of baccala disappears, the children doze off. Suddenly, the air is filled with the sounds of bells! First is the small bell of the old campanile. Another answers from a nearby country church and with that, it is time to go to La messa di mezzanotte – Midnight Mass.
Young and old walk together to the church. Brightly lit, the Nativity scene is placed on the altar, the smell of incense is strong. The Mass begins and as spirits soar, the Baby Jesus is placed in the manger. Outside all stand still, one star above the mountains shines. E` la notte di Natale.