One of the most important ways of celebrating Christmas in Italy is the Nativity crib scene. Using a crib to help tell the Christmas story was made very popular by St. Francis of Assisi in 1223 (Assisi is in mid-Italy). The previous year he had visited Bethlehem and saw where the stable, where it was thought that Jesus was born. A lot of Italian families have a Nativity crib in their homes.
The city of Naples in Italy is world famous for its cribs and crib making. These are known as 'Presepe Napoletano' (meaning Neapolitan Cribs). The first crib scene in Naples is thought to go back to 1025 and was in the Church of S. Maria del presepe (Saint Mary of the Crib), this was even before St. Francis of Assisi had made cribs very popular!
Having cribs in your own home became popular in the 16th century and it's still popular today (before that only churches and monasteries had cribs). Cribs are traditionally put out on the 8th December. But the figure of the baby Jesus isn't put into the crib until the evening/night of December 24th!
One special thing about Neapolitan cribs is that they have always been displayed not only characters and figures from the Christmas Story, but also 'every day' people and objects (such as houses, waterfalls, food, animals and even figures of famous people and politicians!). Naples is also the home to the largest crib scene in the world, which has over 600 objects on it!
In Naples there is a still a street of the nativity makers called the 'Via San Gregorio Armeno'. In the street you can buy wonderful hand made crib decorations and figures - and of course whole cribs!
One old Italian custom is that children go out Carol singing and playing songs on shepherds pipes, wearing shepherds sandals and hats.
On Christmas Eve, no food is eaten until after Midnight Mass. Then the main Christmas meal is eaten. The meal includes Italian Christmas Cake called 'Panettone' which is like a dry fruity sponge cake.
Epiphany , is also important in Italy. On Epiphany night, children believe that an old lady called 'Befana' brings presents for them. The story about Befana bringing presents is very similar to the story of Babouska told in Russia. Children put stockings up by the fireplace for Befana to fill. On Christmas day 'Babbo Natale' (Santa Claus) might bring them some small gifts, but the main day for present giving is on Epiphany.