Laura's Blog

The Holidays in Renaissance Florence

- by Laura Malone Elliott

December 23, 2015

So being the geek I am for history and research, I got more and more curious about how Ginevra and her friends might have celebrated the holidays. This post is an expansion on my last blog about Christmas decorations....hope you enjoy!

There are many similarities—and many differences—between how we celebrate the holidays in the 21st century and how Renaissance Florentines celebrated Christmas. Merriment, gift-giving, family time, and spiritual reflection were all cornerstones of the holiday—but some of the finer points were quite different.

The Christmas season was actually celebrated for almost two weeks. The festivities would began on December 25th, and lasted until January 6th.

Instead of decorating with holly or ivy, the Florentines would (and still do!) decorate their houses with oranges and lemons. The exact origins of this tradition are difficult to trace, but it is possible it was inspired by the popularity of the della Robbias—a family who produced beautiful ceramics, frequently decorated with oranges and lemons around the perimeter.

Nativity scenes, or Il Presepe, became a very popular way of honoring the season. Legend has it that St. Francis of Assisi created the tradition in Italy in 1225. He and his friar created a live nativity scene in order to remind people that the point of Christmas was the birth of Christ—not gift giving (that phenomenon seems to have lasted for centuries!)

Il Ceppo, or the Yule log, was another popular event during the Christmas season. During the holiday, a large log would burn in the center of the town square. The fire represented the new life of the new year, and the burning log represented leaving behind the negativity of the past year.

Since Italy was and still is a very Catholic country, many of the traditions followed the Catholic tradition—this is best shown by the Novena. The Novena is a period of nine days preceding Christmas, where Florentines would pray, reflect, and sing carols.

On Christmas Eve, many Italian families celebrated the “cenone della Vigilia di Natale” (literally maning “the big dinner the night before Christmas”). This dinner would unite all members of the family, and a complete but “poor” dinner would be served—a symbol of purification, and the strength of love and friendship.

Christmas Day was marked by a solemn mass—either during the day, or at midnight on Christmas Eve. The churches would be decorated with representations of the Nativity, and decorative fir trees—a precursor to our modern-day Christmas tree.

On the 6th of January, called the Epiphany, mystery plays—reenactments of Biblical stories—were common entertainments. The most loved aspect of these mystery plays was the Cavalcade of the Magi, when the Wise Men processed through the streets with gifts for the infant Jesus. For many years, the three Magi were portrayed by members of the Medici family—a lovely chance for them to dress up and show off their wealth and power. Likening themselves to the Magi was also a cunning political move—if the Magi were rich but revered, why couldn’t the Medici be as well?

Epiphany was also the day most of the gift-giving took place. The Christmas season was an excellent time to win favor from the ruling political families of Florence. For the children, instead of Santa Claus, a popular myth was that of the Befana. According to legend, The Befana looks a bit like a witch, and flies on a broomstick to everyone’s house and leaves presents and sweets for the children (if they’ve been good), or coal (if they’ve been bad). Legend has it that the three Magi stopped at the home of an old woman to ask for directions to the manger. They then asked her if she would like to join them on their journey, which she declined. Shortly thereafter, she realized she had made the wrong decision, went to look for the Magi and Jesus—but could not find them. Now, every year on the Epiphany, she visits the home of every child, hoping that she might find the baby Jesus.

I kind of love that in the Italian Renaissance, Santa was a kick-butt witch!

I hope, whatever you are celebrating, wherever you are, that you and your loved ones have a joyous holiday season!


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