Updated: Dec 30, 2019
Still being a predominately Catholic country, Italy takes its Christmas traditions seriously so - even though things are slowly changing - don’t expect the kind of shmaltzy over-the-top chocolate box Christmas you can find in some European countries. Italy is still clinging on to its traditional approach to the season and it’s better for it.
You’ll know it’s Christmas if you’re in Italy during December: the streets are decorated in lights, the buskers will be shivering as they deliver carols in the main streets and there will be chestnuts being roasted for sale on every second street corner. And more and more you will find Christmas markets but nowhere near as many as in other countries such as Germany. The market stalls are filled with the usual handicrafts, regional delicacies, and wines - including as mulled wine to warm you up.
If markets are your thing, the best places to heads are Trentino-Alto Adige (in particular the pretty town of Bolzano) or the medieval town of Bressanone; in the Veneto region. Central towns like Cortina and Belluno have fair-sized Christmas markets with beautiful wooden stands selling local and regional products and unique handicrafts, and the main piazzas in cities such as Rome, Milan, Florence, Venice, and Naples will have markets of varying sizes.
For Italians, Christmas is a month-long series of traditions. The temperature really starts to drop and by December 8th - the Day of the Immaculate Conception - winter has properly arrived and the Christmas season officially starts. It’s a day on which Catholics celebrate the belief that Mary was born without sin and was chosen to be Jesus' mother. As part of the celebrations, schools and offices are closed and families decorate their homes and trees, bake sweet foods and start the preparations for Christmas.
From this day until Christmas Day, the festive atmosphere grows daily. In many Italian streets coloured lights and decorations are displayed and huge Christmas trees are erected in the main piazzas. the evening passeggiata takes on a jovial mood (and for many warm mulled wine replaces Spritz as the aperitivo of choice).
During the festive season a nativity scene, or ‘presepe’, is put up in churches, piazzas and in houses and is for many the most important part of Christmas decorations. The presepe dates back to Saint Francis of Assisi who in 1223 built a nativity scene in a cave in the town of Greccio in Lazio and celebrated Christmas Eve mass there. Wherever you are in Italy at Christmas, it’s lovely to go and see all the different types of presepi around. In some villages, you will even see presepe vivente (living nativity scenes) with real animals and local people playing the parts. Some take place in impressive backdrops such as caves, hilltop villages and town squares and have actors, craftsmen and musicians taking part.
On Christmas Eve in the old Catholic tradition often no food was eaten during the day as people fasted (although this is less the case these days). As the sun sets, Christmas Eve (Vigilia di Natale) nowadays often starts with a meal traditionally meatless (fish doesn’t count), and the dishes vary from region to region. But regardless of where you find yourself, the midnight mass at the local church is a tradition from the North to the South.
It’s a late night, as the festive celebrations start after mass because it’s time to brindare (make a toast) with a glass of spumante, something sweet to eat, and it’s these days to exchange gifts and for children to receive something from Santa (Babbo Natale). This is a relatively recent thing, though, as traditionally in true Italian style, gifts are exchanged on January 6 - the day of Epiphany – but we’ll come to that later.
Suffice to say, many Italian kids get two bites of the cherry at Christmastime these days.
Christmas Day itself is a day of eating - usually with the wider family and often at one long table – and for playing games, enjoying wine, and more eating. It’s a feast of Italian food that will vary from place to place but whatever the menu, Italians cannot end their lunch without some famous Christmas treats: pandoro and panettone. The former is a traditional Veronese sweet yeast bread, while the latter is a tall sweet bread full of raisins and dried fruit, hailing from Lombardy. If that isn’t sweet enough, there’s torrone (classic Italian nougat) or homemade biscuits like baci di Dama (hazelnut biscuits from Turin).
The next day – which in Australia we call Boxing Day - is Santo Stefano day: a national holiday in Italy, and it’s another day spent catching up with family and friends.
After that, things tend to settle down a little until December 31st: New Year’s Eve or Capodanno. As in many parts of the world, it’s usually a big party that can start late in the afternoon with aperitivo and continue until midnight to welcome in the anno nuovo (New Year). If Christmas Day is spent with the family, New Year’s Eve is for celebrating with friends.
But the celebrations don’t end there. Christmas time in Italy is not complete until January 6th: Epiphany Day (giorno della Befana). On this night, children traditionally wait for la Befana who, according to Italian folklore, is an old witch-like woman who arrives on a broomstick, comes down the chimneys and fills kids’ stockings with sweets, chocolate, or a lump of coal for those who have been naughty.
So it’s a long festive season but, as they do so often, the Italians do it all in style, and it’s truly a time that draws families and friends together. Put it on the bucket-list to enjoy an Italian Christmas one year – you won’t regret it.
Until next time, buon natale (Merry Christmas) and felice anno nuovo (you can work that one out for yourself….)
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