Christmas in Italy is all kinds of wonderful. Like in the UK, it’s a time for families to get together to enjoy good company, great food and gifts, but some festive details differ slightly. We’ve made a list of festive traditions in Italy to give you an understanding of what it might be like to experience Christmas with an Italian family.
The festive season in Italy begins on December 8th – The Day of the Immaculate Conception. It is on this day that decorations go up and celebrations officially start. With the homes of Italians beautifully decorated, and the streets and piazzas full of pretty lights and huge Christmas trees, some Christmas markets begin trading on this day. If you’re ever in Italy at Christmas-time, we recommend you visit a Christmas market! The main focus of Italy’s festive decorations is still the Presepi (Nativity). Consequently, many scenes can be found all around the country, in churches and piazzas. It remains an artisan tradition in many parts of the country to craft these ornate works of art by hand. Naples is famous for its hand-made nativity scenes and still has streets full of craftsmen dedicated to the tradition. Christmas cheer is in the air from this day onwards.
Festive Christmas Carolling
The 8 days before Christmas (also known as Novena), sees the streets full of carollers singing traditional Christmas songs. It’s common for bagpipe players, or ‘the Zampognari’ to travel from nearby mountains to play folklore carols in Rome, southern Italy and Sicily. This tradition is truly beautiful and is certain to spread Christmas cheer.
Fish on Christmas Eve
It is an Italian tradition for La Vigilia (the Christmas Eve meal) to avoid meat. The intention is to prepare and purify our bodies for Christmas day. Italians instead eat multiple courses of fish dishes on Christmas eve. Sometimes known as ‘The Feast of the Seven Fishes’, this meal traditionally consists of at least seven types of fish, with some families serving up to twelve! As this feast comes to an end, it is traditional for families to attend midnight mass. Some towns also light traditional bonfires in the main square.
Christmas Day Meal
Each region serves their Christmas Day meal slightly differently. Availability of ingredients and past time traditions are key to shaping the Christmas day meal. Though the importance of having a huge feast remains the same throughout the whole of Italy.
The tradition sees family and friends enjoying a lavish lunch that often lasts all day. Full of many courses and traditional dishes such as broths and roasts, this meal is the most extravagant of all.
In most towns across Italy, we exchange gifts after lunchtime on Christmas Day. Smaller cities in the north however, open gifts on 13th December. It’s believed St Lucia brings gifts for children on this day. Other families wait until January 6th – the day of Epiphany and the twelfth day of Christmas. Tradition tells us that on this day La Befena, a woman who lost the wise men, drops presents off to children. On this day the whole of Italy celebrates the end to the festive season with a large dinner. Children are given candy or coal (often made with black sugar), depending if they’ve been naughty or nice. After the 12th day, Christmas decorations are taken down and festivities come to an end.
We welcome you to Pasta di Piazza this December to enjoy some Italian festive traditions.