Christmas in Italy is primarily a season of religious observance. It lasts for three weeks, from December 6th to Christmas Eve, beginning with a novena, or nine-day period of religious devotion. The celebrations end with the feast of Epiphany on January 6th. During the novena, children go from house to house to recite Christmas poems in return for small coins with which they buy sweets.
In another Italian tradition, children write letters to their parents, extending wishes for a wonderful Christmas celebration and including promises that they will be good. On Christmas Eve, many candles are lit as the children in the family take turns telling the wonderful story of Christmas and the birth of the holy "Bambino". At this time, Italian families gather around their beloved "Presepio," a shrine to the Holy Child, and pray.
December 24th is a day of abstinence from meat, but the evening meal is usually a lavish banquet. It generally includes capitone, a dish made with fried eels. A traditional vegetable dish is cardoni, of which Jerusalem artichokes and eggs are the chief ingredients. Sweets include torrone, a nougat candy, and cannoli, or pastries filled with cream cheese. Gifts are distributed after midnight Mass. On Christmas morning, the mother in each family places the Bambino in the manger, which has remained empty until this time.