Epiphany Day and other Italian flair in Chicago

By Caryl Clem

Grace, charm and simplicity were evident in the Nativity scene that was a treasured Christmas decoration sitting on the fireplace mantle. Baby Jesus and family was the honored first symbol of Christmas to be placed inside our home.  Above the manager scene is a handmade star spreading rays of light.   The revered Christ child display derives from Italy. Naples was the first crib maker, Presepe Napoletano, dating back to 1025 before St. Francis of Assisi in 1225 included scenes with a crib in the Christmas story.

In Italy, Christmas celebrations start with prayer and a service to commemorate the Immaculate Conception of Mary on December eighth. Festivities include open Christmas markets, Father Christmas and the custom of setting cribs out in yards awaiting the arrival of Baby Jesus who is placed in the crib on the 24th of December. Constructing a pyramid of shelves above the Nativity landscape base includes common animals with a mix of the famous and ordinary is a custom practiced across Italy. Naples features a Nativity scene with over 600 items featuring an entire street dedicated to this business.  Novena is nine days before Christmas to honor the shepherd’s journey to find Baby Jesus.

Christmas Eve has several traditions including children dressed as shepherds, wearing robes and sandals, singing carols, while playing shepherd pipes. Adults parade as shepherd bagpipers in costume of former times. Especially in Southern Italy, on Christmas Eve “ Estra dei sette Pesci” or the Feast of Seven Fishes offers seafood which has become very popular in America by Italian families. A light meal avoiding meat is served before going to a midnight Christmas Mass; afterwards a Christmas cake called Panettone is served .Christmas Day is spent eating during the entire day.  Modern Italians exchange gifts on Christmas day. Children write letters to Father Christmas for gifts and to their parent to tell them why they are loved.

As songs fill the air during the Christmas season, I start humming along anytime The Twelve Days of Christmas plays.  As I visualized ladies dancing while lords are leaping, I am clueless that the 12 days of Christmas has religious origins. In Italy and 11 countries around the world, Epiphany is a public holiday, celebrated on January 6th,   a religious event celebrating the Three Wise Men and the baptism of Jesus. Throughout Italy, customs vary, while rural villages open gifts on St Lucia day, December 13 th or on January 6th from the good witch, Befana or the Three Wise Men. The Christmas season ends as the Carnival season begins that finishes with Mardi Gras.

In the Chicago area, by the year 2000, over half a million can claim Italian ancestry. Taylor Street to Ashlan and then to Morgan are referred to as “Little Italy”.,  sometimes called University Village. The neighborhood is just between the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) campus and the Illinois Medical District. Little Italy continues to thrive with some of the best restaurants as well as Mario’s Italian Lemonade on Taylor Street. Scafuri Bakery opened in 1904 after the Scarfuri family immigrated in 1901. Luigi used to give out free bread during the Depression which may account for the family’s success today. Besides being known for its bread and pastries, the Italian cookies are very popular. Als Beef goes back to 1938 and offers several locations throughout Chicago and its suburbs. The Rosebud restaurant is named after the Sicily flower on Taylor street and serves some of the best Italian pasta, chicken, and veal cuisine with several locations.