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."
A Different Kind of Christmas
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.
The La Befana Legend
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.
Grove said Befana has saved Christmas for her family on more than one occasion.
"Whatever my kids didn't get for Christmas, the Befana can quickly go shopping and make up for it," she said with a laugh.
"I was terrified of Befana when I was a child" said Alinovi. "But it's a big tradition in Italy -- much bigger than Babbo Natale."
Another blow to Babbo Natale -- the closest thing Italy has to Santa Claus. This is remarkable when you consider that the man who inspired Santa Claus is actually buried in Italy.
The Real St. Nick
St. Nicholas, the fourth century bishop, is of course widely known to be the figure that was ultimately transformed into the jolly man in the red suit. But how did that happen? And how did good St. Nicholas, a bishop from southern Turkey, come to be buried in a sleepy Italian seaport?
St. Nicholas of Myra lived in the Lycia region of the Roman Empire -- what is now southern Turkey. St. Nicholas dedicated his life to helping the less fortunate and was revered for acts of generosity, kindness and in particular for his anonymous gift-giving to children. He died in A.D. 343.
As the centuries passed, St. Nicholas became enshrined in Christian mythology and became the patron saint of cities across Christian Europe. His tomb in Myra was popular with pilgrims and remained under the control of Christian rulers for hundreds of years after the fall of the Roman Empire.
But with Islamic armies sweeping in from the East, concern grew that it would become increasingly difficult for Christian pilgrims to visit the tomb of St. Nicholas.
In 1087, a group of sailors from Bari, on the eastern shores of Italy, travelled to Myra. The sailors convinced the Orthodox monks who were watching over the tomb of St. Nicholas to allow them to carry the sacred remains to safety.
A New Home
The bones of St. Nicholas arrived in Bari on May 9 of that year -- they were laid to rest again, an enormous church was built and the shrine once again became a major pilgrimage center.
In Germany, Sankt Nikolaus, and in Holland, Sinterklaas, became Santa Claus of Christmas fame and that tradition was carried to the Americas by European settlers.
The magnificent Basilica di San Nicola in Bari is visited by thousands of faithful and tourists every year.
So perhaps the next time your children ask if Santa Claus is real, maybe you should take them on a trip to Italy.