December 22, 2010

The Twelve Posts of Santa, Part V: Italy and the Coca Cola Santa

Our comparison for terms in Italian are "Babbo Natale" and "La Befana", which we are the first to admit are not directly comparable. La Befana is an old witch (seemingly relatively benign) who brings presents/coal to good/bad children on the eve of Epiphany (in January), which is when some traditions say the Wise men showed up. We thought that Babbo Natale is simply the Italian version of Santa.

We can't say that the map below shows much pattern between these two characters, but it does act as a nice depiction of the range of Italian in Europe: primarily spoken on the "boot" (and Sicily and Sardinia) but crossing national borders in the north.

What we were not expecting to find is that Babbo Natale is considered by many to be an invention of Coca Cola as a marketing device. Even more shocking is that some view Coca Cola as a non-authentic cultural actor rather than a bringer of light, goodness and carbonated beverages (OK, we're kidding about the last point). Still, it again highlights the complexity of the Christmas tradition in cultures other than one's own.

The historical equivalent of Santa Claus in the Italian tradition, according to our trusted local informant, is "Presepe" or "Gesù Bambino", the new born Jesus. In hindsight, it could have been very interesting to compare Gesù Bambino to Babbo Natale in order to see the differences between traditional Italian practices and corporate marketing. Sadly, we didn't have Gesù Bambino on our search list and we'll have to wait until next year.

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