- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 26, 2001

Many of us had had all we could take of gifts, egg nog and fudge by yesterday evening, but not all Christian cultures end their Christmas celebrations on Christmas Day. In many European countries, the Christmas season stretches from early December until Jan. 6, the feast of the Epiphany, which commemorates the Three Kings' visit to the Christ Child in Bethlehem.
In Italy, for example, Epiphany, 12 days after Christmas, is just as celebrated as Christmas Day.
"That's when Befana comes with gifts for the children," says Italian Ambassador Ferdinando Salleo, "but if you have been bad, you get a piece of coal."
Legend has it that La Befana was a woman who declined to join the Wise Men on their journey to see the Christ Child. Later regretting her decision, she set out to bring gifts to the Child, but never found Him, so she decided to leave gifts for other children instead.
In preparation for her visit, Italian children much as American youngsters in anticipation of Santa Claus hang stockings on the mantelpiece; La Befana, who supposedly comes down the chimney, places sweets and gifts in the stockings.
La Befana travels on a broom in a witchlike manner. In some areas much as Santa is impersonated in the United States in malls and homes she is portrayed by women for the delight of children or to raise money for charities such as the Red Cross.
"Italian children are so lucky. They get gifts twice during the Christmas season," says Martin Stiglio, director of the Istituto Italiano di Cultura in Northwest.
The first time around is on Christmas Day, when the Baby Jesus, Gesu Bambino, is said to bring gifts to the children, Mr. Stiglio says.
Because Italy is such a diverse and mountainous country, it has many different culinary traditions for the Christmas season, Mr. Stiglio adds.
In Rome, stewed eel and roasted lamb are popular, he says. In Sicily, where Mr. Salleo grew up, tortellini in capon broth is a common Christmas dish.
Panettone, the fruity Italian Christmas cake that has become popular the world over, originates in Milan, Mr. Stiglio says.
One common denominator from Venice in the north to Palermo in the south is the fast on Christmas Eve.
"We eat absolutely no meat," says Anna-Maria Salleo, the Italian ambassador's wife. "Then we have a big family lunch on Christmas Day."
In the United States, toys are among top sellers at Christmas, but in Italy, employers make sure that generous Christmas gifts are given to adults as well.
Employers traditionally give their employees what's called la Tredicesima, a monetary bonus that equals a month's salary, Mr. Stiglio says.
"It's the 13-month pay bonus. Naturally, I would say this is the most popular holiday tradition," Mr. Stiglio says. "You can't touch that bonus."

Other countries where the Christmas season lasts for about a month include France, Germany, Spain and Sweden, which starts its holiday season on Dec. 13 with the festival of St. Lucia, "the queen of light."
In the land way up north, where the days are short and the weather cold, Lucia (usually a family member, a colleague or a classmate plays the part) dresses in a white gown and wears candles in her hair. She brings sweets such as saffron bread and gingersnaps in the early morning on the 13th.
"It's our protest movement against darkness," jokes Swedish Ambassador Jan Eliasson.
Mr. Eliasson had a Lucia procession at his residence in Northwest on the 13th, during which young Swedish girls sang Christmas and Lucia songs, which are mostly about the dark months and the importance of light such as candlelight for one's well-being.
"Swedish winter is very dark and long. In fact, it's one of the reasons I joined the Swedish foreign service," Mr. Eliasson says.
The Lucia tradition started in Sweden in the mid-1800s, says Rose-Marie Oster, a professor of Germanic studies at the University of Maryland. Lucia was an Italian saint who was martyred for having embraced Christianity. Some believe the legend of Lucia was brought to Sweden by Christian vikings about 1,000 years ago.
"Many Americans know about Lucia," Ms. Oster says. "If you mention Lucia, Americans know it's the girl with the candles in her hair."
To Swedes in the United States, the Lucia tradition is so important that practically all Swedish organizations arrange to have their own Lucia processions.
"It marks the beginning of the Christmas holidays," Mr. Eliasson says while stealing a glance at the abundant julbord to which Swedish and American guests flock after the Lucia singing. The julbord is a Christmas smorgasbord whose name reveals the Old Norse origin of the English word "yule."
"I just love Christmas food. My favorites are meatballs and the baked salmon," Mr. Eliasson says.
Among about three dozen dishes of ham, smoked salmon, cheeses and breads was rice porridge, one of many Scandinavian Christmas meal staples. In the past it was a favorite because it was cheap and easy to make in large quantities. Nowadays it's popular because there are games associated with the dish.
Some families assign children to come up with porridge rhymes. Others include an almond in the porridge, and whoever gets the almond gets to make a wish.
Traditionally, in Sweden and also in Finland and some parts of Norway the Christmas tree is stripped of its ornaments and thrown out of the house on Jan. 13, which is the final day of the Christmas holiday. The day also is celebrated with candy, fruit and games for children.
It is not exactly clear why these nations continue their Christmas celebrations for an extra week, but there is a lot to suggest that it's a remnant from old viking traditions.
While the Christmas holidays officially last until the Christmas tree is thrown out on the 13th, most of the serious celebrating is done between Lucia and Jan. 6.
"From Lucia to Epiphany, not much is functioning in Sweden," Ms. Oster says. "It's interesting to note in this driven society [the United States] that in Sweden, we really calm down after Lucia. Here, you sort of fall into Christmas, and then it's over. There is little time to wind down."

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