Fascinating Christmas Traditions in Italy

Written by on December 15, 2020 in Italy Stories

Beautiful sunset in Manarola, Liguria - Nativity scene in the background - Fascinating Christmas traditions in Italy

Every country has their own Christmas traditions all around the world, but they share some key traits that involve themes of lights, pine – evergreen, family, food, hope and fait. Christmas is probably the most celebrated holiday in the world.

In Italy the main focus of Christmas is very religious and the most important parts of this festivity: family and food.

So, shall we discover some fascinating Christmas tradition in Italy?

Lit up giant Christmas Tree Gubbio

Biggest Christmas Tree in Umbria

The Christmas tree tradition was brought in by Queen Margherita of Savoy in the second half of the XIX. century. She had the first Christmas tree in her home and quickly after that it spread all over the peninsula.

Since 1981 Italy hosts the world’s biggest Christmas tree. Or at least an illumination in the shape of a Christmas tree. It is installed annually on the slopes of Mount Ingino (Monte Ingino) outside the town of Gubbio, in Umbria. The tree consists of 3,000 multi-coloured lights creating a shape of 650 metres high and 350 m wide. A group of volunteers, the Alberaioli, donate free time for about three months every year so that on 7th December Gubbio’s Christmas tree can illuminate the Umbrian landscape. In 1991 the Guinness Book of Records declared it the “World’s largest Christmas tree”. Since 2010 electricity for the Christmas tree lights is generated by a photovoltaic system.

Christmas Presents – when do Italians exchange gifts?

13th December – Santa Lucia – The Saint of Light  

In some Northern Italian areas, especially in parts of Lombardy and the Veneto, Santa Lucia is said to bring gifts during the night of 12th December. She is accompanied by her faithful flying donkey, Pufulet.  Santa Lucia rewards good children with little presents. And gives pieces of coal to the ‘cattivi’ (naughty) kids. But even the coal is sweet, so don’t be afraid to be a bit cattivo every now and then.

Children have to go to bed very early and all the lights have to go out. If Santa Lucia still sees the light on, she does not enter the house.  Children often leave a carrot out for her donkey. Some coffee or milk with some biscuits for Santa Lucia. On the morning of December 13, no one gets to have a lie in. Children get up early to eat the sweets and play with their gifts.

In Verona, there is a huge Christmas market in honour of Santa Lucia.

photo of la befana on her broomstick and santa clause and the lovely statue of Santa Lucia in the churche

24-25th December – Babbo Natale

Babbo Natale (Santa Claus) delivers the presents at the stroke of midnight on 24th December. According to the old Christian tradition, however it was Baby Jesus who brought the presents instead of Babbo Natale.

When you open your presents also depends on when you have your main Christmas meal. In the old times, families in Central and Southern Italy celebrated with the “Cenone” (big dinner) on 24th December. Then they opened presents at midnight. In the North people tend to have a Christmas lunch on 25th December. So the children open their gifts before that.

6th January – Befana or Epiphany – The good old witch

The old good witch, Befana, visits the children in Italy on the evening of the Epiphany (5th January). She fills their socks with sweets and presents if they have been good good. Or a lump of coal or dark sweets if they have been bad.

Venetians mark Epiphany with a gondola race. Each boat is rowed by a retired gondolier dressed as La Befana, or La Marabtega as she is known locally. If you’re in Venice, make sure you head down to the Grand Canal to watch!

savoury cofri filled with ham and cheese

Christmas Gofri

The gofri are special waffles with a “honeycomb” shape that you find at village festivals. They are often prepared also at home for evenings with friends during the Christmas period.

This tradition comes from the Piemonte region, particularly the Susa Valley. During the winter here there is a lot of snow and in the old times people had difficulties reaching the communal bread ovens in the village centre. So, they started making gofri at home instead. They are generally prepared outdoors in a special cast iron pot. Everyone stays warm sitting around the fire on which the pot is placed, chatting and drinking mulled wine. It is a lovely way to spend a special winter’s evening with your friends and family under the stars!

nativity set with the holy family - Fascinating Christmas Tradition in Italy

Presepe

The presepe or Nativity scene is one of the most important decorations at Christmas in Italy. They are carefully arranged in churches as well as other public areas. Also in family homes. The presepe is a representation of the Holy Family in the stable.

It is said that St. Francis of Assisi established the tradition of the presepe in 1223. The tradition spread across the peninsula, especially in regions like Puglia, Campania and Sicily. In many places, Italians still organise the presepe vivente (living nativity scene) in the streets of Medieval hamlets.

Traditionally the figurine of the Baby Jesus is added at midnight on Christmas Eve. The Three Wise Men are added on 6th January. If it is a large Presepe that includes the whole town of Bethlehem with animals and houses, then the Three Wise Man appear at Christmas but moving slowly every day to baby Jesus until they reach him 6th January.

These unique figurines are made in Naples where the making of Christmas cribs is an ancient art. You can find many shops in the famous via San Gregorio Armeno.

bagpipes with sheepskin

Bagpipes

If you happen to visit Rome or Southern Italy during the Christmas period, keep an eye out for the ‘zampognari’ or bagpipe players. They play in streets and squares, normally dressed in traditional sheepskin and wool coats and symbolise the arrival of the shepherds in Bethlehem to greet baby Jesus.

Christmas flower - the beautiful red colour lights up your home

Stella di Natale or Poinsettia

A lot of Italians these days opt for an artificial Christmas tree. Others prefer to have a ‘Stella di Natale’ or Poinsettia pot plant instead. The shape of its flowers is thought to represent the star of Bethlehem. Whilst the red leaves are the blood of Christ and the white ones his purity. It brings a bit of colour into winter homes and you’ll see market stalls and florists full of them during the build-up to Christmas.

Tredicesima

December is the month when Italian grown ups look forward to the ‘tredicesima’, an extra month’s wages to put towards the cost of Christmas! It is valid both for public and private sector employees. If they’ve been good boys and girls of course. It currently costs the government about €10 billion a year.

ceppo - burning big log during the Christmas period old tradition - now they make it as a cake

Ceppo di Natale  

This tradition originates from Tuscany in Italy when a huge log is set on fire at Christmas and left burning throughout the Christmas season.  The block of wood is chosen carefully and is usually the piece where the roots of the tree fuse into the trunk, representing the union of the earth and the sky, as well as the unity of the family.

These logs are sometimes sprinkled with wine so they give off a sweet smelling smoke. And they are often dipped in chemicals to give colour to the flames. The leftover log is preserved and it is used to light the fresh log in the following year, which brings good fortune.

Today the real ceppo di Natale became more Tronchetto di Natale – Yule log cake that is also traditional Christmas dessert in many other countries.

fiaccolata - torch skiing down for Christmas Eve - Fascinating Christmas tradition in Italy

Skiing at Christmas

While some Italians are attending midnight mass on Christmas Eve, the residents of Cortina d’Ampezzo are whizzing down the ski slopes in a procession of blazing torches.

The tradionation Italian panettone's savoury version made up as little sandwiches - Fascinating Christmas Traditions in Italy

Panettone Gastronomico

The ‘panettone gastronomico’ is the savoury version of the better known sweet ‘panattone’. And like the sweet panattone it originates from Milano.

It is prepared using a neutral-flavoured bread, called pan canasta, which is baked in the typical classic panettone shape. It is cut into horizontal slices which are spread with all kinds of savoury toppings before being reassembled. The arrangement of the slices is done in such a way that each guest can pick up a small stuffed sandwich without ruining the composition. In Northern Italy it is often part of the Christmas menu as an antipasto.

Find out more how Italians celebrate Christmas!

 

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