Christmas is an important tradition in Italy which is celebrated for nearly a month, with friends and family coming together to spend time with each other and do what Italian’s do best: share food and love. Materialistic gifts do not play a special part in the festive season; the gift is love within the family and eating like royalty.
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Read on to find out how you can incorporate these traditions in your special day.
Before we start let’s learn some vocabulary!
Italian holiday traditions
The festivities begin on December 8th– the day of Immaculate Conception. This festival celebrates the day God freed Mary of all sins in life, in order to be the Mother of Christ. On this special day, everyone takes to the streets as the Christmas trees and lights are in all towns.
Presepe is the Nativity scene which is a vital decoration that can be seen in every home from the 8th of December as a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, (until the 24th midnight Baby Jesus is covered with a piece of cotton wool), along with the pagan albero di Natale (Christmas tree).
Fast forward a few days, celebrations are still in swing for La Novena- 9 days before Christmas day. La Novena highlights the three wise men embarking on their special journey to Bethlehem to greet Baby Jesus. Religious Italians pray and children sing carols in order to receive chocolate.
Italian most famous Christmas markets
The Christmas markets in Italy are inspired by German markets with stalls selling homemade jewelry and decorations. Every major city in Italy hosts a Christmas market in the main square, this is great for tourists to experience the authentic tradition surrounded by the local community.
The stalls also serve traditional Italian food typically enjoyed at Christmas, such as caldarroste (large roasted chestnuts) washed down with vin brulè (mulled wine). Here is a list of the must visit markets in Italy:
- Piazza Santa Croce, Florence
- Piazza Castello, Milan
- River Passsirio, Merano
- Piazza Navona, Rome
Italian Christmas Eve traditions
La Vigilia: Christmas Eve is the most important day of the festivities, Italians refrain from eating meat the whole day; this is a rule strictly related to religion, not eating meat apparently shows respect for the forthcoming birth of Jesus. Various forms of fish are incorporated in the vigilia’s dinner such as frittelle di broccoli (broccoli croquettes) e baccalà (salted cod fish) as a starter, linguine con le vongole (clams) as the pasta dish and roasted seabass for main along with salad and roasted potatoes.
On midnight of the 24th church bells are rung throughout the city of Rome, as a celebration for the birth of Jesus. It is also when children open their gifts; sometimes parents organize a visit by Babbo Natale (Santa Claus) for the little ones just before midnight.
Italian Christmas Day
Now after all these celebrations, the big day has finally arrived. Buon Natale– Merry Christmas!
Christmas day is slightly different to what you may know. Italians don’t focus on gifts; the main focus is on sharing the special day with family and eating a banquet for hours like kings and queens! Every region’s banquet is different but the meal is constructed by at least 4 courses.
These courses include antipasti: made up of Italian meats and cheeses shared amongst the family. A pasta dish such as tortelloni, ravioli, lasagne al forno etc.
The main course is a meat dish with a variety of vegetables: roasted lamb, pork, goat, meat balls in tomato sauce etc.
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Towards the end of this post you will also find a quick test to reinforce what you learned from my live and learn Italian experience video.
Italian Christmas desserts
Dessert is a hot topic which causes many debates between families: panettone or pandoro? Panettone is a sweet bread filled with candied fruits originating from Milan. Pandoro is a sweet star shaped bread from Verona covered in powdered sugar.
Although both desserts are similar this causes a dispute within almost every household, family members are stuck in deciding which one to buy, but usually they buy both. However, it is not Christmas without il torrone (nougat), the classic one is hard, made with honey and almonds, but there are many variants such as the soft version so there is no risk of chipping your teeth.
In addition, you can find torrone made of milk chocolate and hazelnuts, dark chocolate torrone with hazelnuts, torrone made of gianduia chocolate and the classic torrone with pistachio. Make sure you try the classic torrone and two or more variants.
It is common for Italians to give these Christmas treats to their relatives and neighbours and also for employers to give them to their employees sometimes in the form of a hamper gift. Check out my favourite Italian Christmas desserts even though we also have panettone and pandoro for breakfast or as a snack in the afternoon with tea or coffee only during Christmas time.
Together with the sweets also dates and nuts are very popular and are eaten also after dinner when playing cards. Indeed Italians like to play a variety of card games all throughout the Christmas period betting small amounts of money normally.
The most traditional game is called Tombola and it is similar to Bingo, however, there are 5 different prizes starting from the less valuable one when the player has ambo (2 numbers on the same horizontal line of the numbered card), terno (3 numbers), quaterna (4 numbers), cinquina (5 numbers) and tombola when all the card numbers are out). At this point the player shouts tombola.
The Epiphany in Italy
Even after this special day, Christmas celebrations are still not over! Everyone takes to the streets on January 5th– The eve of the Epiphany. La Befana– the good Christmas witch, delivers presents to good children and sends them down the chimney on her broom, she delivers coal to the children who have been naughty.
Towns and cities host festivals as a celebration, people dress up as La Befana, and bunting of the witch is placed around the cities. Hitting Piazza Navona in Rome is a must at this time of the year, the little ones will be forever grateful to you, but you will also love it, guaranteed! Folk lore states the three wise men asked La Befana for directions to Bethlehem and invited her to meet the baby.
She saw the bright star of Bethlehem and brought gifts to give to the Baby Jesus, yet she couldn’t find the manger, hence the reasoning for her delivering gifts to children.
January 6th– The Epiphany is the end of the Christmas period; it is a celebration of the three wise men arriving in Bethlehem with gifts to see Baby Jesus in his manger.
The feast of the Epiphany is the last time family comes together in the festive season before children return to school and adults resume their working week. The feast is a large lunch consisting of authentic Italian cuisine, with sweet treats to be consumed at the end as the Christmas period is sadly over.
Time to test your skills!
Typical Italian Christmas greetings and phrases:
▶︎ Buon Natale
▶︎ Auguri di buon Natale
▶︎ Tanti auguri di Natale
▶︎ Auguri di Natale a te e famiglia
Al negozio (at the shop)
Vorrei un panettone classico, un pandoro, un pandoro senza glutine, un panettone senza canditi (without candid fruits), un torrone classico, un torrone al cioccolato fondente (dark chocolate) ed un torrone alla gianduia, grazie.
Italian Christmas songs
Wait a second! Before you go you can’t miss listening to Italy’s and Andrea Bocelli’s favourite Italian Christmas song; tu scendi dalle stelle. Here is Andrea Bocelli singing it in concert.
If you don’t understand the lyrics click here: https://youtu.be/THoF5snnSvE
I hope you enjoyed this post, hit me up if you have any questions.