This weekend families throughout Italy put up their Christmas trees and dusted off their nativity scenes. The towns have finished hanging their Christmas lights, the strands, orbs or stars extending across the street, stretching from one palazzo to another. The Christmas markets are open for business. It’s the weekend of December 8th, the Immaculate Conception, and in Italy that means the Christmas season has officially begun!
While in America it seems that Christmas is creeping closer and closer to the start of the school year, here the holiday is still kept under wraps (see what I did there?) until December 8th. The holiday is an important one in Catholic Italy, but even more so in Milan. That’s because December 7th just happens to be the feast day of St. Ambrose.
St. Ambrose, or San Ambrogio as he’s called here, was the bishop of Milan from 347 until his death in 397. Today, he’s patron saint of the city. The saint left a profound impact on the city – to this day the Milan church follows the Ambrosian rites instead of the Roman rites – and the feast day is still widely celebrated and followed. Milan knows how to celebrate, and this weekend is one of the biggest celebrations of the year in the city.
That’s why I’d say there’s no better place to enjoy Christmas than under the lights of Milan. It’s Italy’s most modern city, also one of the biggest and richest. Shopping, panettone and opera in La Scala — there are some things that are just inherently Milanese. If you want to get a true taste of Milan culture and traditions, come during the Christmas season or better yet, the weekend before December 8th.
Christmas seems to explode this weekend in the region and with the long weekend (we get both the 7th and 8th off work) there is plenty to help pass the time. Tour the O Bej! O Bej!, the nearly ancient Christmas market supposedly named after the Milanese dialect back in 1510. Booths and stands sell anything from trinkets to veritable artisan crafts and enough food to keep you warm all day and all night as you shop under the beautiful Castello Sforzesco. Brave the crowds at the Artisan Fair or Artigiano in Fiera at the Polo Fieristico Rho-Pero or search for the best panettone in the city. The sweet bread’s origins are in Milan.
By nightfall I’m usually eating my fourth pretzel or waffle and waiting in line to ice skate on the new rink in the Darsana neighborhoodby while Milan’s highest social and economic class is heading to opening night at La Scala, the most important night of the magnificent opera house’s season. La Scala is a world-renowned opera house, held up to the likes of those in Vienna and Sydney and luck would have it (or tradition) that the first ceremony of the season is December 7th.
In America it’s all up for grabs. If you want to put your tree up for Thanksgiving, go for it. If you want to fight the holiday’s far-reaching grasp, damn the man. But in Italy, and especially in Milan, the lines are clear-cut. The Christmas season begins this weekend, and it begins with a bang. In the events of one weekend we can experience the city’s religious history, cultural traditions and culinary traditions.
I’d call that a damn good holiday weekend.