How Italians celebrate Christmas?

Written by on December 15, 2020 in Italy Stories

Beautiful nativity set for Christmas

Christmas in Italy, like all across Europe, is still very much a traditional family affair, with the generations gathering together to feast on an endless amount of delicious home cooked food. Let’s discover the important facts and dates for the Italian Christmas!

How Italians celebrate Christmas

Christmas Festivity Period

The Christmas season lasts about one month in Italy. Christmas decorations and fairy lights go up in all the towns and villages from the 8th December. For the celebration day of the Immaculate Conception – l’Immacolata.  They come down after the 6th January, for Befana, or the day of the Epiphany – l’Epifania. Which marks when the Three Wise Men arrived in Bethlehem.

Live Nativity set in Naples where the tradition comes from - How Italians celebrate Christmas?

Presepe or Presepio – Nativity scene

For the 8th December it is not only the Christmas trees and decorations that get set up. But also the Presepe (Nativity scene).

The Presepe or Nativity, that is a central feature of Christmas celebrations all over the Christian world, originated from Italy. On the night of Christmas Eve in 1223, Saint Francis of Assisi commissioned the re-creation of the scene of Jesus birth in a nearby cave. Where he then led an outdoor Mass, as at the time it was forbidden to have sacred celebrations in church.

Today, the Presepe is made up of small, hand-carved figurines, usually made in the region of Naples. Some Italian Comune, and some families too, take things to another level. Building whole villages with shops, houses, mountains etc. The little Jesus figurine is put in the crib after Midnight Mass on the 24th December.

Christmas market in Aosta, over the ruins of the roman theatre

Christmas markets

Italians love Christmas markets. Where they like to enjoy a festive passeggiata on cold, starry evenings with the family. Sipping mulled wine or hot apple juice and having a chat – ‘chiacchierata’ with friends.  The markets normally start at the end of November and finish in early January. There are lovely kiosks where local artisans sell their products. Anything from ceramics, wooden carvings, candles, delicious cheeses, chocolates and marmalades.

In Aosta, the beautiful Christmas market attracts visitors from all over Europe and especially from neighbouring France and Switzerland. It is set up on the remains of the Roman Theatre, a very atmospheric and magical setting.

Christmas Letters

There is another lovely tradition in Italy. When children write letters to “Babbo Natale” they also write letters of love to their parents and wrap them like gifts. Parents unwrap them along with the other presents and read them aloud at the table during the Christmas lunch.

Mindnight mass in Vatican at Saint Peter's Square all lit up - how Italians celebrate Christmas?

December 24 – La Vigilia

Christmas Eve is the most important day during the festive period.

Traditionally for Catholic people, Christmas Eve is a day of fasting. Celebrations start only after the midnight mass. Although the idea is to eat “magro” – lean, many Italians will indulge in multiple courses of fish. La “Festa dei Sette Pesci” – 7 types of fish – is also known as Il Cenone delle Vigilia. It is the ultimate Christmas Eve feast.

In the Centre and South of Italy, people tend to celebrate “La Vigilia whereas in the North of Italy they celebrate more the “Il giorno di Natale”.

In most towns and villages the church holds an evening or midnight Mass. If you are in Rome for Christmas, don’t miss out on the Midnight Mass held by the Pope at the Vatican on Piazza San Pietro (Saint Peter’s Square). The Pope also ceremonially places Little Jesus in his crib on the life size “presepe”.  Church bells are rung throughout the city and at the same time cannons are fired from ‘Castel Sant’Angelo’.

Italian Christmas cakes decorated for Christmas lunch - How Italians Celebrate Christmas?

December 25th – Il giorno di Natale (Christmas Day)

If you missed the Pope at midnight mass, you will have the chance to see him on Christmas Day at midday Mass, also at Piazza San Pietro.

Italians cook a large Christmas lunch, usually of roasted meats, ‘pasta in brodo’ – broth, grilled vegetables and the traditional Christmas cakes.

The world famous ‘panettone’ cake is filled with nuts and candied fruits to symbolize the fertility of the New Year ahead. Panettone comes from Lombardy, while Pandoro, that is a star-shaped, plain version without nuts and candied fruits, comes from the Veneto. There is also the delicious Torrone which is a kind of nougat made of honey, sugar, almonds or hazelnuts. Its name literally translates as “big tower”. The recipe varies depending on whether you are in the south or north of the county.

December 26th – Il giorno di Santo Stefano (Saint Stephen’s Day)

Celebrations often extend into December 26 with the national holiday of Santo Stefano. Families get together and eat leftover Christmas dishes and sweets. Afterwards they wrap up and go for a passeggiata in town with their family and friends. As most of the people do the same, it is an opportunity to wish neighbours and friends “Buona Festa” or Buon Natale”. Many people also like to visit the presepe in the village square and in their local church.

Italians like to play the Tombola (similar to Bingo) and watch Christmas movies together with their family and friends during the Christmas days.

La Befana - the good old witch is flying on her broomstick to visit and take presents for children

January 6th – La Befana (or l’Epifania – Epiphany)

According to Italian legend, the Three Wise Men came to the house of Befana, an old lady, searching for baby Jesus. She could not help, but gave them some food and a bed to sleep on. The next day, the Three Wise Men asked her if she wanted to go with them to find baby Jesus. She declined, claiming to be too busy with housework. After they had left, she changed her mind and filled her stockings with chocolates and sweets. She hopped on her broomstick and set off searching for baby Jesus. Along the way when she encountered good children, she gave them presents and sweets from her stocking. Italians believe that ‘La Befana,’ is still looking for baby Jesus when she comes down the chimney to fill the stockings of good children and give coal to naughty children.

La Befana is especially celebrated in Roma and Bologna where the piazzas host fun events for children.

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