Christmas in Italy: Santa Sleeps Here

ByABC News
December 18, 2006, 9:10 AM

ROME, Dec. 18, 2006— -- Santa Claus won't be coming to towns and cities across Italy this Christmas -- because he never really has. He's just not a part of the holiday tradition.

Strangely, though, anyone interested in getting to the heart of the Santa mythology would find its roots on this country's east coast.

For children in Italy, the jolly man bearing gifts is called Babbo Natale -- he's an Italian version of Father Christmas, but rarely found in the southern half of Italy.

"Babbo Natale is really someone who came from the northern part of Europe," said Betta Alinovi. The Roman designer and mother of two young girls said she does remember believing in Babbo Natale when she was young.

"But it wasn't really something you saw in my parent's generation -- so it's relatively new to Italy."

Of course Christmas in Italy is a major event, just like in America. Maybe too much of an event for some. "It's far too commercial" complains Alinovi. "How can children understand the true meaning of Christmas?" she said.

A sentiment that is increasingly shared by parents at Christmas time. Ironically, people from outside Italy -- particularly from North America -- find things pretty, well ... traditional over here.

Ruth and Scott Grove live in Rome with their three children, ages 6 to 10. They're originally from northern Virginia and they lived the typical "American" Christmas for many years.

Ruth Grove said it's different in Italy: "We like Christmas here because it's not the hustle bustle, there's not the commercialism, and it can be a nice, family, relaxing holiday."

More relaxing it may be, but the "Christmas" period in Italy tends to last a little longer -- right through until the Epiphany on Jan. 6, when there's another round of gift-giving.

There's no escaping the deeply traditional La Befana -- the kindly witch who flies around on a broomstick who drops gifts into the stockings of children who have been good and lumps of coal in the stockings of children who have been not so good.