Rite Before Christmas

Assimilation challenges tradition in South Philadelphia’s Italian-American population.

By Tara Murtha
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Dec. 29, 2008

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In Italy, the official Christmas season starts with Novena, or nine-day period of religious devotion that begins Dec. 17 and ends Christmas day.

Festivities continue until the Feast of Epiphany on Jan. 6, the main day of gift-giving. In the Italian tradition, gifts are not given from Santa or St. Nick, but from La Befana , a witch-like character who fills children’s shoes and stockings with candy and toys while flying around the world on a broom looking for baby Jesus.

Legend holds that when the three kings stopped to ask La Befana for directions to find Jesus to give him his gifts, she declined because she was too busy with sweeping and household chores, a moment she regrets into eternity.

Closer to home, around 10th and Wharton, windows and doors are dotted with evergreen garlands, fresh wreaths and huge red velvet bows knotted by Tina Dolpies at the New Leaf Shop. Dolpies has been selling floral arrangements and cellophane-wrapped bundles of butter-colored poinsettia plants out of her corner store since 1975, though she admits the business of holiday garlands has slowed a bit in recent years as many of her customers get older.

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