Italians on Italians
Beyond Toscano

"Oh Bej, Oh Bej" - Milan’s Christmas calling

In Milan, you know it’s almost time for Christmas when the Oh Bej fair comes around. An annual market festival that takes place over 4 days from December 7th, it’s a tradition dating back over 500 years and celebrates Saint Ambrose – patron saint of Milan. The fair is packed full of treats, perfumes and candies enjoyed by guests and visitors to the city alike.

But while December 7th is the date Saint Ambrose is traditionally celebrated, he’s not the reason for the fair. In 1510, the first Grand Master of the Order of Saints Maurice and Lazarus, Giannetto Castiglione, paid a visit to the city. Sent by Pope Pius IV, he was on a mission to rekindle devotion, after the people of Milan seemingly lost faith in the Pope.
But rather than act as a missionary and attempt to win people over with words, he brought with him a large amount of beautifully wrapped gifts, parcels containing toys and candies for the citizens and their children. On entering the city, a procession quickly formed behind him as he marched to the Basilica of Sant'Ambrogio, where many people were celebrating Saint Ambrose and handed out the gifts. People chanted ‘oh bej, oh bej’ (so beautiful, so beautiful) at the gifts and the name stuck, the idea of a street market full of gifts became entwined with Saint Ambrose day.