- Joanne Herd
Italian Christmas traditions that make the season special
Who doesn’t love Christmas time? Sparkling Christmas lights and lovely decorations abound, plus there are presents, good food, and extra days off work or school.
Each country has its own traditions when it comes to celebrating Christmas, and Italy is no different. Not only does Italy have its own unique traditions, those traditions can vary within the country, especially between the north and the south.
The Christmas season in Italy is so much more than just Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. That's why it's more common to wish someone "buone feste" (happy holidays), not simply "Buon Natale" (Merry Christmas) or "Buon Anno" (Happy New Year).
The holidays start on December 8...
The Christmas holiday season kicks off on December 8th with La Festa dell'Immacolata, or the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.
The day doesn't celebrate the immaculate conception of Jesus, but of his mother Mary. Pope Pius IX defined the holiday on December 8, 1854 in his papal bull, Ineffabilis Deus. Many Catholic countries now observe the day, and in Italy it is a national public holiday.
You can expect that many businesses will be closed for the day. You'll also see celebrations and processions throughout the country.
This is the day that many Italians put up their Christmas tree and other holiday decorations, and traditionally is also the beginning of the Christmas markets.
In Rome the day and the beginning of the Advent season are signaled by a cannon firing from the Castelo San'Angelo, kicking off the celebrations.
... and continue for a month
The holiday celebrations continue through the month of December and into January. The Christmas season doesn't officially end until Epiphany (the 12th day of Christmas) on January 6th.
Other holidays that fall within the overall holiday period include Il Giorno di Santa Lucia (St Lucia’s Day) on December 13; Christmas Eve; Christmas Day; Il Giorno di Santo Stefano (St. Stephens Day) on December 26; La Festa di San Silvestro (The Feast of San Silvestro) on New Years Eve; Capodanno, or New Year’s Day, and Epiphany on January 6th.
Epiphany is the celebration of the Three Wise Men arriving in Bethlehem. Every year in Rome a reenactment of the Epiphany is staged by horsemen in the Piazza Navona.
Sundays during Advent are also very important in Italy, with special services being held in churches around the country during the weeks leading up to Christmas.
The nativity scene reigns supreme
While Italy has a lot of Christmas trees, the nativity scene is the most important Christmas decoration.
The nativity scene, or prespi, as they're known in Italian, can be found everywhere. You'll see one in every church, in private homes, and in many piazzas in cities and towns across the country.
The holiday tradition of the prespi is thought to have begun in Naples around 1000 years ago. Today Naples is famous for being the center of the Italian nativity scene tradition. Along the Via San Gregorio Armeno you'll find the workshops of master prespi makers and can see them working year-round.
Another famous Italian Christmas tradition you won't want to miss is the Prespi Viventi, or Living Nativity. You'll find these events taking place throughout the country during the Advent period.
The tradition was started by St. Francis in the town of Greccio, a small town located north of Rome. In 1223 he set up a manger inside a cave, complete with hay, an ox and a donkey.
He invited the villagers to come view this living nativity while he preached. The tradition has remained, and today you'll ind living nativities throughout the country.
Italian Christmas markets
The north of Italy has a great deal of Germanic cultural influence, and started the tradition of the Christmas market in Italy.
The largest of Italy's markets can be found in Bolzano, a town in the Dolomites. But no matter where you are in Italy you'll probably find a traditional market selling crafts and sweets, festive foods and mulled wine.
The sounds of Christmas
Christmas is still very much a religious holiday in Italy, so you can expect to hear celebratory church bells rung on Christmas Eve to mark the birth of Jesus.
Bells aren't the only traditional sound you'll hear. In many piazzas you'll find zampognari playing their traditional instruments. They normally performing in pairs while wearing traditional the folk dress of sheepskins and wool cloaks.
The zampognari take their names from their instruments, the zampogne. It's a traditional instrument similar in many ways to a bagpipe.
Food. Lots and lots of food.
There is no specific traditional Christmas meal in Italy, the way that ham and turkey are traditional for many families in the US. Instead each family has their own traditional Christmas foods, normally consisting of one or more pasta dishes, meats, sides and desserts.
Christmas Eve dinner is normally a lighter meal, consisting of fish rather than meat. Being a traditionally Catholic country, it's normal for families to abstain from meat on Christmas Eve.
It's interesting to note that the "Feast of the Seven Fishes", one of the best know "Italian" meals in the US, isn't actually Italian. It was started in the early 1900s by Italian immigrants to America as a nod to their Catholic tradition of eating fish on Christmas Eve. Many Italians in Italy aren't familiar with it at all.
On Christmas Day, Christmas lunch is normally the largest meal and can last several hours, with multiple courses. The foods vary greatly from region to region, but one thing they all have in common is that they end with sweet treats.
Panettone, pandoro, panforte, and torrone are all Christmas dessert staples.
Panettone, which literally means "big bread", was developed in Milan in the 15th century. It's a yeast-raised cake, traditionally filled with candied fruits and raisins. Today it's common to find creative variations of the classic panettone, including versions with chocolate chips, roasted chestnuts, and even Moscato wine mixed in.
Pandoro is similar to Panettone, but without the fruit or nuts. The name means "golden bread" and it's traditionally baked in an eight-pointed star-shaped pan and served with a dusting of powdered sugar.
In spite of Italy being a country where many foods are still made at home from scratch, panettone and pandoro are almost always store-bought. That's mainly due to the labor-intensive process to make them, which includes over 30 hours for the cakes to rise.
Panforte originated in Siena, and means "strong bread". It's a Medieval recipe, with the earliest know version made in the 13th century. It's a dense cake containing fruit, nuts and honey, and spiced with cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and cardamom. Is there anything that smells more like Christmas?
Torrone is a Christmas nougat, and you can find both soft and hard varieties. Its origins are debated, but one thing that is agreed on is that it's traditionally made with egg whites, honey, sugar, and nuts.
The good Christmas witch
These days it's common for children to receive gifts from Babbo Natale, Santa Claus, St. Nicholas, or Father Christmas, but that hasn't always been the case.
One of the most uniquely Italian Christmas traditions is the legend of La Befana, an old woman who brings gifts on the eve of Epiphany. The legend says that the Three Wise Men stopped at La Befana's home on their way to find the Christ Child.
They invited La Befana to come with them as they searched for the child, but she had too much housework to do, and declined. After they left she had second thoughts. Quickly filling a basket with gifts for the baby, she followed the star, but failed to find the manger.
La Befana continues to travel the world on her broom, searching for the Christ child and leaving candies, chocolates and gifts for good children. But if a child has been bad they can expect to only find coal when they wake up on Epiphany morning.
The bottom line
If you're looking for a new experience during the Christmas season, consider spending some time in Italy in December. You may come home with some new traditions you'd like to incorporate into your family's Christmas celebrations.