Italian children experience an abundance of gift giving during the Christmas season. Not only do they receive a visit from Santa but less than two weeks later they are given gifts from La Befana, a friendly witch who leaves presents in their stockings on the eve of Epiphany every January.
Since more than 90% of Italy's population identifies themselves as Catholic, holidays here are aligned closely with Catholicism. Epiphany is a public Catholic holiday that falls on Jan. 6, marking the end of the Christmas season and the day the three wise men visited Jesus with gifts.
On the evening of Jan. 5, legend has it that the three wise men knocked on La Befana's door while looking for Jesus. She let them come in but when asked to go with them to visit the baby Jesus she said she was too busy. Later she regretted her decision and ran out of her house with a broom in hand and gifts for Jesus but never was able to catch up to the three wise men. Today she is still looking for the baby Jesus so she gives all children gifts every eve before Epiphany.
To find out about Italian gift giving etiquette, we consulted with Francesca Tosolini who grew up in Italy and is the author of Italy from the Inside. She had some great inside information for us.
Good Gift Wrap Colors: When it comes to wrapping a gift in Italian culture, the gift should always be wrapped, but the actual wrapping of the gift doesn't hold symbolism. Tosolini explained that gifts are sometimes presented in colorful Ziploc type bags. “If the gift comes from a store, they also use the store paper bag closed with staples, sometimes decorated with ribbons sometimes not.'
Bad Gift Wrap Colors: Avoid Black and gold together because these colors are for mourning. Purple is bad luck.
Etiquette: While it's seen as poor taste to leave the price tag on in the U.S. it's ghastly to this in Italy.
Bribery vs. Gifting: A lavish gift to a business associate may be seen as bribery.
Taboo Gifts: Italians love food, especially the food of their own culture. While food from home is a good gift to a host family when traveling abroad in other countries, it's not in Italy.
Tosolini added that “Italians never give chrysanthemums as a gift, because those are the flowers for the dead, so you bring them to the cemetery.”
Good Gifts: Fine wine and gourmet cheeses are ideal. Homemade food is seen as the biggest labor of love.
Business Gift Giving Standards: Business gifts are not a common practice in Italy. Company logoed items will be deemed especially tacky. With that said, Christmas gifts may be exchanged between companies or business associates.
Historical Gift Giving: Italy gave the entire world the gift of pasta, marinara and good cheeses. Rumor has it that Italy “gifted” the U.S. the gift of spaghetti via Thomas Jefferson, he's known as the first recorded American to serve up spaghetti at a dinner party.
Gift Giving Occasions: Birthdays and Catholic holidays are the most popular gift giving occasions.
*Hostess gifts: Homemade traditional foods are common hostess gifts from one Italian to another. If giving a hostess gift as an outsider, liquor, chocolates and flowers are recommended as long as the flowers follow old European tradition.
Old European tradition in terms of giving flowers is standard in most European countries. To sum it up, never give an even number of flowers or 13 flowers, and avoid giving roses (unless to a lover), chrysanthemums and lilies.
*Birthday: Birthdays are celebrated exactly like we do here in the states. Cake, wrapped gifts, balloons and all!
* All Souls Day: This November holiday is when Italians give gifts to the dead. Chrysanthemums are the standard gift one will find decorating grave sites.
*Christmas: Christmas is a national holiday and celebrated like we do in the states.
*Wedding: Gifts for the home are standard. Just as in the states, gift registries are very common. Following tradition, the bride sometimes carries around a purse for monetary gifts. It's tradition for the newlywed couple to give their guests “confetti” or candied almonds.
*Anniversaries: Tosolini informed us that “for wedding anniversary though (25 or 50 years), there's a tendency to give champagne flutes, most of the time with the anniversary year imprinted on the glass. When the couple doesn't want gifts, they select a charity and collect money to be donated to the charity.”
*Housewarming: Housewarming gifts are more symbolic than practical. Here are some common housewarming gifts and their meaning.
– Wine and bread serve up a wish that the couple will never go hungry.
– Rice symbolizes fertility and blessings for a child.
– Candles represent hopes that the new home is always filled with light.
– The gift of a broom signifies the sweeping away of evil.
– Salt is a really popular housewarming gift because when sprinkled in doorways, signifies luck and good health.
* Valentine's Day: Valentine's Day has crept its way from the U.S. to Italy and is now widely celebrated between lovers.
*Baby: Gifts are given at showers but more so at baptisms/christenings. Common baptism gifts are religious memorabilia, photo albums and money.
*Enjoy this article? Click here to learn about gift giving in other parts of the world.