Christmas is a wonderful time to be in Italy because of all the decorations and history. Santa has begun to make an appearance in recent years, but there are several unique Christmas traditions in Italy that stretch back centuries and are still celebrated today.
Here are 7 Italian Christmas traditions that you can easily recreate at home, or ways that you can join in some if you plan to be in Italy for the holidays.
Buone Feste: A Month of Holidays
In Italy, it’s common to wish someone buone feste (happy holidays) rather than simply buon natale (Merry Christmas) because Christmas isn’t the only holiday. The festive season in Italy starts December 8th for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception and runs through 6 January (The Epiphany). Christmas is the main event, but the holiday spirit really doesn’t wind down until the 7th of January. Enjoy the monthlong celebration!
Eat, and Eat Some More
The Feast of the Seven Fishes is an Italian-American tradition rather than a specifically Italian Christmas tradition, it is typical to skip the meat on Christmas Eve. The meat and pasta make a serious comeback on Christmas day for the cenone (big dinner), and there is often a kind of meat-filled pasta in broth. There are lots of seasonal goodies to indulge in throughout the country, as well, including panettone. The sweet cake filled with raisins and candied fruit is eaten after many meals during December and January.
In major cities, you will find towering Christmas trees taking over the main square and smaller trees are increasingly decorating Italian homes. However, even though the trees are gaining popularity as Christmas decor, the true Christmas scene-stealer is the presepe (or presepio). Presepe are nativity scenes that depict the manger scene, with Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus. In addition to the central figures, presepe can grow into huge, elaborate displays with handpainted figures and motorized moving parts. You will find them in homes, as well as in almost every church and in many other central locations around towns and villages.
A Witch Fills the Stockings
Babbo Natale (Santa Claus/Father Christmas) is growing in popularity in Italy, but the true Christmas figure is La Befana. La Befana is usually depicted as a witch, and legend has it that this kind old woman was out sweeping when the Three Wise Men invited her to join them as they set out to visit the newborn King. Befana had too much to do, so she declined the offer to join the Magi on their journey. Once she realized Jesus was the Son of God, she regretted her choice, and now travels around the world leaving gifts for all the good children on January 6th.
Clap Along to the Zampognari
Think bagpipes are a purely Scottish phenomenon? Well, in southern Italy (including the areas around Rome), you will hear the unmistakable tones as you walk through markets around Christmastime. Dressed like shepherds, wearing sheepskin vests, Zampognari are another unique Christmas tradition in Italy. The musicians would historically arrive from the hills to celebrate Christmas with their families but now they are musicians who carry on the tradition. They take their names from their instruments – zampogna.
Presents aren’t the reason for the season, but most Italian families do exchange gifts as part of their holiday traditions. These might be opened on Christmas Day, but that’s not a hard and fast rule. Some families do the gift opening on New Year’s Eve, while still others wait for La Befana to bring the presents on January 6th.
The Main Christmas Tradition in Italy: Natale con i tuoi
There is a saying in Italy that you spend Christmas with your family, and Easter with whoever you want. Natale con i tuoi, Pasqua con chi vuoi. Gifts might not make up the central part of the holiday, but the family certainly does. Most people celebrate at home and Christmas and St. Stephen’s Day are both national holidays. Gather round the table, pop another bottle of prosecco, and break out those photo albums to take a trip down memory lane. Buon Natale!
Want to experience some of the holiday magic for yourself? Here are the best places to visit during Christmas in Italy.
If you are curious about more ways to celebrate the end of the year, here are Italian New Years’ traditions.