Christmas in Italy

With Christmas now knocking on our door and people starting to get into the Christmas spirit at home, in school and in the office, we thought now is a good time to talk about it. We all know that Christmas in Ireland is something we look forward to every year. It might not come as a surprise that Christmas is a major holiday in Italy.

We have some very uniquely Irish traditions when it comes to Christmas, this is also true for Italians. They also celebrate lots of great, unique Christmas traditions! Across Italy, Natale tends to be a family-centric holiday, a time to stay at home with loved ones. Due to the size of Italy, traditions can also vary from city to city, from exactly which dishes are served, to when to open presents, making every region an interesting and different place to experience Christmas.

So what exactly happens on Christmas in Italy? Here are some of the most popular Christmas traditions that can be found across Italy. Why not try something different this Christmas and give some of these Italian traditions a try.

The start of Christmas

In other countries, including here in Ireland, times as early as Halloween signal the start of the Christmas season. In Italy, though, Christmas officially kicks off with the Day of the Immaculate Conception of Mary on December 8th. This is when decorations go up, both on the streets and inside houses and when some Christmas markets start across the country.

Decorations and huge Christmas trees can be found in main piazzas, like in front of the Colosseum or in Milan’s Piazza Duomo. It is also at this time that Babbo Natale, the Italian version of Santa Claus, starts to spread holiday cheer to everyone.

During the eight days before Christmas, go caroling—and keep an eye out for bagpipe players

The eight days before Christmas, also known as the Novena, are filled with carollers singing traditional songs around the neighbourhood. If you happen to be in Rome, southern Italy or Sicily around this time, keep an eye out for the zampognari, or bagpipe players. These are people who travel from the nearby mountains to play their merry folklore carols for the people in the larger cities.

Traditional Italian Zampognari

Presepi, presepi, and more presepi

Along with all the lights, wreaths and trees that come with Christmas, presepi, the Italian for nativity scenes, are displayed in churches and piazzas. These are almost all created by hand and crafting these ornate works of art remains an artisanal tradition in many parts of the country. Naples; the southern Italian city is world-famous for their hand-made presepi. It still has whole streets with one workshop after another devoted to the craft. If you go there you will be able to see how the create these wonderful pieces of art.

Traditional Italian Presepio

Don’t eat meat on Christmas Eve…

To prepare and purify their bodies for Christmas Day, Italians avoid meat on la Vigilia (Christmas Eve). Although the idea is to eat lean, most indulge on multiple courses of fish… sometimes as many as seven! That’s right seven! Can you imagine eating a full seven course meal on Christmas eve and then eating a full Christmas dinner the next day?

…but do go to midnight Mass… or put on skis?

After the family dinner, many Italians head to midnight Mass at their local church to celebrate. Some Romans even head to the Vatican for Mass with the Pope!

But traditions vary from city to city: Up north, in Cortina d’Ampezzo in the Dolomite Mountains, thrill-seekers ski down the slopes with torches at midnight to welcome Christmas. This can be an amazing sight when seen as you see all the torches wind their way down the side of the ski slope in the middle of the night.

On Christmas Day, eat away

On Christmas Day, Italians normally invite their whole family and friends for a large lunch that usually goes on all day. As this is a celebration, many save up to have the most lavish celebration possible, serving up traditional dishes like pasta in brodo (pasta in broth), roasts and traditional desserts like panettone. This is a time that brings everyone closer together and, as mentioned it can last all day and even long into the night.

Teraditional Italian Panettone

The festivities don’t end on December 25th

Celebrations don’t just end there. They often extend into December 26th with the national holiday of Santo Stefano (St. Stephen’s Day). Again, families get together and eat leftover Christmas dishes and sweets. Italians are very proud family people and celebrations such as these are held in high regard and it is not unusual to see many generations sitting around the table all enjoying the different traditions.

The official end of the Christmas season isn’t until January 6th, the Day of the Epiphany. This is also the twelfth day of Christmas. On the eve of the Epiphany, families usually prepare a large dinner to mark the end of the holiday season. During this meal, the children are given candy or coal, which is usually made of black sugar, depending on if they were naughty or nice that year. After January 6th, you’ll see Christmas markets close and decorations start to come down. You will notice that this is a very similar time to when we do the same in Ireland.

When you exchange gifts depends on where in Italy you are!

Ask an Italian when her family opens gifts, and it might give you a clue to where they are from! Gifts are commonly exchanged on Christmas Day after lunch—sometimes with the belief that Jesus has delivered them. The, however, is not the same all over Italy. Some of the more northern cities believe that the blind Saint Lucia brings gifts for children on December 13th, so they open them that morning.

In other parts of the country, families may sometimes wait until January 6th. The Epiphany is when la befana, a kind of “good witch” who is believed to have followed the wise men, but got lost, drops off presents. La befana is a particular tradition in Rome and Bologna, where the main piazzas often host fun activities for children. In Venice, locals believe that la befana arrives every year by boat.

Italian La Befana

Regardless of when they open their presents, many Italians keep their wrapped gifts on display on the pyramid-shaped ceppo, along with candles and other decorations. This can often be known as the ‘Tree of Light’ on it there will traditionally be a presepio, a nativity scene. There may also be fruit and nuts on it to represent the gifts of the earth.

Have you ever celebrated Christmas in Italy? Have you experienced any of these Italian Christmas traditions? Share your Christmas stories on our Facebook or Twitter using #GinosChristmas