Have yourself a Buon Natale by spending the Christmas holidays in Italy. From festive feasts to torchlit ski trips, experience the wonder of Italian Christmas traditions this holiday season.
At the heart of any Italian Christmas celebration are family, friends, and lots of food. The holiday celebrations in Italy last around a month, kicking off on 8 December with the feast of the Immacolata and ending on 6 January, the Epiphany. Considering Italy’s strong ties with Roman Catholicism, it’s no surprise that the country’s holiday celebrations are particularly vibrant. Whether you want to mosey around markets, bond with Babbo Natale, stuff yourself on Italian Christmas food, or spot the Pope, Christmas in Italy is a joyous, unforgettable occasion.
Festa dei sette pesci
Families around the world might wait patiently until Christmas Day to go all out on feasting, but Italians start the food fest a day earlier on Christmas Eve, La Vigilia di Natale, with the Festa dei sette pesci (Feast of the seven fishes). As the name suggests, Italians, especially in the southern regions, will sit down to a large meal featuring fish dishes of all sorts. In Naples, it’s customary to have baccalà (dried and salted cod) and capitone fritto (fried eel), while in cities like Palermo and Taormina in Sicily, Pasta con Le Sarde (sardine and fennel pasta) and Ricci di Mare (sea urchins) are favoured.
While the meal on La Vigilia might seem as big as it can get, there’s no comparison to the mountains of food Italians serve on Christmas Day, Natale. Usually enjoyed at lunchtime after the Pope’s televised midday blessing, the main Christmas meal is festive decadence at its most extreme. Italian Christmas foods include pasta in brodo (pasta in broth), roast meats like stuffed capon, more fish, and an endless array of side dishes. The meal can last all day, finishing off with desserts that are typically variations on sweet breads: Siena has panforte, Genoa enjoys pandolce, Verona has pandoro, and in Milan, panettone. The foodie festivities keep going through Santo Stefano (Boxing Day), New Year’s Eve, and the Epiphany.
Presepe, or nativity scene, is essential to any Italian Christmas celebration and pops up all over the country in homes, churches and city centres. It is believed that the concept of the crib scene dates back to the 11th century when the church of Maria del Presepe, in the province of Salerno, built one in order to illustrate the Christmas story for parishioners unable to read the Bible. Presepi have since become a cherished tradition and an artisanal trade, particularly in Naples. Visit Naples’ Via San Gregorio Armeno to see traditional presepi makers craft and sell their handmade wares. For a modern twist to this ancient tradition, keep your eyes out for the annually-chosen celebrity figurine that becomes a fun addition to the presepe.
As surprising as it might sound, Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas in Italy without bagpipes. While Italians aren’t as convinced by kilts, the traditionally Scottish instrument plays an important role in Southern Italy, especially the Abruzzo region and Rome. During the holiday season, shepherds, or zampognari, will don wool and sheepskin cloaks and travel down the mountainside and city streets in pairs, playing their bagpipes and flutes to the delight of passers-by. Once done as a way for shepherds to earn extra cash, it has now become a beloved tradition, practiced out of love of music and festive cheer. Visit Pescara, Teramo, and Sulmona to see them perform.
Mercatino di Natale
While not as known as Germany’s famous Christmas markets, Italy’s Mercatino di Natale are more intimate, but just as festive. The annual market in Bolzano, set against the beautiful backdrop of the Dolomites, is Northern Italy’s largest and runs late November early January. Visit for traditional Tyrolean treats like zelten (fruit cake) and vin brulé (mulled wine). In Rome, the picturesque Piazza Navona transforms into a colourful Christmas market with stalls and booths selling sweet treats and souvenirs.
Fiaccole di Natale
One of the most visually spectacular Italian Christmas traditions is the Fiaccole di Natale, a torchlight procession on Christmas Eve. Head to Abbadia San Salvatore in Tuscany to see this medieval-age ritual come to life, where everyone gathers to sing carols and carry torches in honour of the shepherds present at the birth of Christ. For thrill-seekers, take a trip to Cortina d’Ampezzo in the Dolomite mountains, where brave skiers take to the slopes at midnight, torches in hand, to welcome the arrival of Christmas.
In many European countries, like France and Germany, it is customary for children to put their shoes out on the night of 5 January, in anticipation of receiving gifts from the Magi for the Feast of the Epiphany. In Italy, however, children eagerly await the arrival of La Befana. Legend has it that the Three Wise Men stopped by this old woman’s house to ask for directions on their way to Bethlehem. They invited her to join them on their journey, but she refused. Regretting her decision, La Befana went out looking for the Christ Child but couldn’t find him. Every year, on the eve of the Epiphany, she once more goes out in search of Baby Jesus, leaving presents for Italian children as she goes.
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