Different cultures around the globe celebrate Christmas in various ways, and Christmas traditions in Italy are no exception. While some practices may be familiar to Americans, Italians do have several traditions that are unique from other Christmas customs around the world.
Italian Christmas Celebrations
Buon Natale, or Merry Christmas, is a phrase heard between December 8 and January 6, the Christmas season in Italy. Although the streets are not as filled with as numerous dazzling Christmas light displays as those in the U.S., the holiday is still one that holds special traditions for the people. Several significant days mark the Italian Christmas calendar, most notably:
- December 6: Festa di San Nicola
- December 8: L'Immacolata Concezione
- December 13: Festa di Santa Lucia (St. Lucia's Day)
- December 24: Christmas Eve
- December 25: Christmas Day
- December 26: Festa di Santo Stefano
- December 31: Festa di San Silvestro (New Year's Eve)
- January 1: Il Copadano (New Year's Day)
- January 6: La Festa dell'Epiphania (Epiphany)
Visitors planning to travel to Italy during the holiday season will find that plenty of special events and celebrations are hosted on an annual basis in various towns and villages across the country. A calendar of events from In Italy Online is available, with most special events taking place between December 24 and January 6.
Christmas Traditions in Italy
While Christmas traditions in Italy show signs of westernization, customs from years past have managed to stand the test of time. Different regions and families may choose to incorporate various aspects of the old traditions with new traditions, just as holiday celebrations in the U.S. vary from house to house and state-to-state.
Presepio Reigns Supreme
The main form of Christmas decoration found in Italy is not the Christmas tree, but instead the Nativity scene. Called presepio or prespi, these scenes are often intricately detailed and are in churches and towns across the country. From live scenes to scenes that include modern world figures to simple wooden cutouts, the Nativity scenes are as diverse as the people in the country.
That said, nowadays you will see Italian homes with Christmas trees in them. The decorating of Christmas trees is a relatively new Christmas custom in Italy, starting only 50 years ago. The first public Christmas tree was erected in St. Peter's Square at The Vatican in 1982. Generally, Italians decorate their tree and set up their Presepio or nativity on December 8th for The Feast of the Immaculate Conception.
Zampognari are traveling musicians, often bagpipers and flutists, who travel across Italy during the holiday season. Originally shepherds, these men stop in front of Nativity scenes, playing traditional Christmas carols. Today, they can still be heard on the streets of many Italian towns in their traditional garb.
Christmas music in the streets is nothing new. In fact, caroling got its start in Italy, thanks to St. Francis of Assisi.
Visiting the Vatican
It is customary for people living in or near the city of Rome to visit The Vatican on Christmas Eve at midnight. The Pope gives a midnight service, but in truth, the service takes place at 9:30 pm, not 12. For those unable to make the mass in person, the event is televised.
Ringing in Christmas on the Slopes
True, some Italians attend mass on the late evening before Christmas, but some also welcome December 25th by skiing down Italy's snowy mountainsides. In northern Italy, it is customary for people to ski down ski hills at midnight, carrying torches in their hands.
Christmas Meals in Italy
Italians are serious about the Christmas season and serious about food. It is no great surprise that food gets center stage on major holidays.
No Meat on Christmas Eve
December 24, or Christmas Eve day, is usually one of vegetarian and pescatarian dishes for Italians. They eat fish, especially eels, for 24 hours before midnight mass. This is known as The Feast of Seven Fishes. In Rome, Italians eat a dish called pezzetti. This vegetarian dish often includes artichoke, zucchini, and broccoli, all fried together. In Naples, a dish of seafood and broccoli is a typical meal for Christmas Eve.
A Festive Meal Fit for Kings
Christmas Day is a day for celebrating and eating. Italians have a meal called Cenone, which translates to "the big dinner." The Christmas Day meal usually features lamb or roast as the main dish. Another common traditional Italian Christmas Day meal is a meat-filled pasta in a broth. Desserts might include standard fare like panettone, a light cake. Panforte is a cake with chocolate flavors, spices, and nuts. In Siena, residents eat cavallucci, a festive cookie that is decorated with a house on it. Those spending Christmas in Rome might munch on a spiced nut pastry called mostaccioli.
Although some children receive gifts from Babbo Natale, Father Christmas, on Christmas Eve or morning, most still eagerly await the visit from La Befana. Arriving on January 6, legend has it that La Befana is a witch who heard of the good news of Jesus' birth from the Wise Men. Either unable or unwilling to travel with them, she eventually started looking for Jesus but never found Him. Instead of giving her gifts to the newborn baby, she instead leaves them for children across Italy as she searches for Jesus.
Christmas stockings are hung in anticipation of her arrival, just as they get hung for Santa in the U.S. Bad little children are said to receive coal or nasty vegetables in their stockings, just as American custom dictates.
La Befana is more than a gift-giving Christmas witch. Legend has it; she is also a kicking housekeeper. The story goes, La Befana leaves gifts and sweeps up the floors of the homes she visits. She does this to sweep away the problems and gives families a fresh slate to begin the new year with. Santa Claus might need to up his game!
January 6 (Epiphany) is an essential day for Christmas gift-giving in Italy. Italians give gifts differently than others around the world who celebrate Christmas. They put small gifts in a bowl called The Urn of Fate. Everyone then takes a turn choosing a present from this bowl.
Italian children give gifts too! On December 12th or 13th, they leave a plate of food out for Santa Lucia and a tray of hay, milk, and carrots for her donkey.
A Special Time of Year For Italians
Christmas traditions in Italy embrace the religious aspect of the holiday, focusing on prespi and less on the commercial aspects. Like Americans, music and exceptional food mean a lot to the Italians during the Christmas season. Different parts of the country hold true to different customs and traditions during the holiday season, but regardless of how the holiday season is celebrated, it remains culturally important to the people of this country.