Christmas in Italy Santa Claus Epiphany Mercatini di Natale Epifania Befana
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Christmas in Italy is primarily a season of religious observance. It lasts for three weeks, from December 6th to Christmas Eve, beginning with a novena, or nine-day period of religious devotion.
The celebrations end with the feast of Epiphany on January 6th. During the novena, children go from house to house to recite Christmas poems in return for small coins with which they buy sweets.

Christmas season in Italy is traditionally celebrated from December 24 January 6, or Christmas Eve through Epiphany, which is often referred to as the Twelve Days of Christmas.
If you're traveling to Italy during this festive season, you're certain to run into a variety of special events, celebrations, and holiday markets throughout the country.
Celebrating Christmas for 12 days follows the pagan season of celebrations that started with Saturnalia, a winter solstice festival and ended with the Roman New Year, the Calends.
However many events start on December 8, the Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception, and you'll sometimes see Christmas decorations or markets even earlier than that.
No matter why or when you want to start celebrating Christmas this year, you're sure to find something to put you in the holiday spirit on your trip to Italy in late December or early January.

Italian traditions in Italy are based heavily on the religion of Christianity.
Christmas starts eight days before Christmas and lasts till after the Feast of Epiphany.
Musical salutes are made at the shrine of the Virgin Mary and songs are played at the homes of carpenters in honor of St. Joseph.
Eight days before Christmas, a special Novena of prayers and church services begin. It all ends on Christmas Day.
On December 23rd, sometimes earlier, children dressed as shepherds with sandals, leggings tied with crossing thongs, and wearing shepherds’ hats, go from house to house playing songs on shepherds’ pipes and giving recitations.
They receive money to buy Christmas treats.
In cities like Rome real shepherds sometimes carry out the performance.
A strict fast is observed 24 hours before Christmas after which a meal with many dishes (but no meat) is served.
The traditional Christmas dinner, Cenone, is made up of spaghetti and anchovies, an assortment of fish, fresh broccoli, tossed salad, fruits, and sweets.

Christmas trees are decorated, but the focal point of decoration is the Nativity scene.
Italians take great pride in the creation of the manger, which was a sort of clever publicity stunt thought up in 1223 by St. Francis of Assisi, who wanted to involve the peasants in celebrating the life of Jesus.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City possesses a presepio from Naples that contains figurines carved from wood and dressed in garments of satin, along with 30 gold-trimmed angels of the Magi, all framed by majestic columns.

Italian Christmas Vocabulary List Click to hear the highlighted word spoken by a native speaker:

il Natale — Christmas
Babbo Natale — Santa Claus
Buon Natale — Merry Christmas
il regalo di Natale — Christmas present
la vigilia di Natale — Christmas Eve
l'albero di Natale — Christmas tree
il canto di Natale — Christmas carol
il biglietto d'auguri — Christmas card
il presepio — nativity, creche
Gesù Bambino —the Christ Child or Infant Jesus
la festa di Santo Stefano — Saint Stephen's Day
il Capodanno — New Year's Day
gli auguri di Capodanno — New Year's greeting
la Befana — kindly old witch who brings children toys on Twelfth Night
la festa dell'Epifania — Epiphany
i Re Magi — the Magi, or the Three Kings or Wise Men

No Time At All The Italian language is rich in expressions and idioms, and Christmas time is no different. For example, durare da Natale a Santo Stefano means to last from Christmas to St. Stephen's Day (December 26), i.e., no time at all.

Children in Italy believe in a female version of Santa Claus called La Befana, an old woman who flies on a broom and brings presents. According to Italian legend, Three Wise Men asked La Befana for directions to Bethlehem.
La Befana was asked to join them but declined three times.
It took an unusually bright light and a band of angels to convince La Befana that she must join the Wise Men, but she was too late.
She never found the Christ child and has been searching ever since.
On January 6, the Feast of Epiphany,
La Befana goes out on her broom to drop off stockings filled with treats to all the sleeping children of Italy. Just as children in America leave milk and cookies for jolly Santa Claus,
La Befana collects messages and refreshments throughout the night.

  • Instead of sidewalk Santas and Christmas trees, visitors to Rome should keep an eye out for zampognari and pifferai, Abruzzese shepherd pipers who have been coming to town each December since time immemorial, and for presepi, elaborate nativity scenes on view all over town.
  • Rosemary Torigian's personal road map shows you how to tell it's Christmas in Italy.
  • If you're traveling to Italy over the holidays, don't leave home without this shopping list of special Christmas markets.
  • We asked some of our friends to share their favorite personal memories of the Christmas-New Year's season in Italy.
  • Although Sims Brannon is not of Italian descent, this mouth-watering recipe for Christmas biscotti comes straight from his childhood in Tennessee.
  • Here's a guide to many special events that recur each year all over the country.
  • Sor Giovanni, a bona fide guardian angel from Rome, taught our editor how to celebrate New Year's Evein Italy.
  • Here's your chance to participate in the re-enactment of the very first Christmas Eve pageant ever held.
  • Even though Christmas trees are not very Italian, did you know Italy has the tallest Christmas tree in the World?
  • Practically every little town in Italy has some sort of colorful festivity for Christmas and Epiphany. Here's a list you'll want to keep for future trips.
  • Here's an interesting site about Christmas nativity scenes (mostly in Italian).
  • Italian merchants are not as “sale-prone” as their American counterparts, but prices plummet in January (generally right after Epiphany, but sometimes as early as December 26), the best time of year for sales in Italy.
  • Wherever you are in Italy on Christmas eve, go to Midnight Mass. Even if it's a tiny parish church, there'll be a presepio, hearty singing, lots of ceremonial splendor, and the profuse candlelight may offer your only chance to see the dark interior of many churches.

An Italian Christmas Buon Natale! Felice Anno Nuovo!
Merry Christmas! Happy New Year!

Christmas Presents - Regali di Natale

Most Italians open their presents on Christmas Day morning or after lunch, although some wait until Epiphany, l'epifania, on January 6th. It's traditional for children to receive a stocking, la calza, colourful, long socks full of sweets, i dolciumi, if they’ve been good, but they’re filled with coal, il carbone, which is made of black sugar, if they’ve been bad.

Traditionally, it's not Santa Claus but the kind witch, La Befana, who brings the gifts and sweets. It’s thought she followed the wise men but got lost and has been wandering ever since, handing out presents to children at Christmas.

Food & Drink Christmas in Italy - Cibi e Bevande natalizie

The essence of Christmas Day in Italy is family, love and food, la famiglia, l'amore e il cibo. Italian festive food varies from region to region, although there are some common dishes. In the Italian Catholic tradition, Christmas Eve is a day of abstinence from meat so a celebratory banquet frequently features fish - some families even prepare as many as 20 different fish dishes! In Rome and southern Italy, il capitone, a dish made with fried eels is a firm favourite. After dinner, Italians head off for midnight mass.

Lunch, il pranzo, on Christmas Day is the most important of all the Christmas feasts and is a lengthy affair.

Delicacies such as crostini with liver pâté or the classic tortellini in chicken stock, brodo are on the table, while lo zampone, a pig's foot filled with spiced mince meat, or il cotechino, a sausage made from pig's intestines containing a similar filling, are particularly popular in northern Italy. Others opt for lamb, l'agnello and accompanying vegetables include mashed potato and lentils, lenticchie. Tortellini, cotechino and lenticchie are often on the menu again on New Year's Eve.

Sweet-toothed Italians indulge in desserts such as nougat, il torrone, and a light Milanese cake filled with candied fruit and raisins, called il panettone.
The main, traditional cake is gold bread, il pandoro, which is very similar but without the candied fruit or raisins.
A gingerbread with hazelnuts, honey and almonds, il panforte, is also popular.

In fact, most Christmas sweets contain nuts and almonds as, according to peasant folklore, eating nuts aids the fertility of the earth and people, increasing flocks and family.

Quirky Customs - Abitudine Curiose

Many small towns feature a Nativity scene with actors wandering around small streets, stables and squares interpreting ancient trades such as saddlers and knife-cutters.

Pipers, zampognari, perform traditional Christmas songs on bagpipes, flutes and oboes. These travelling musicians come down from the mountains in the regions of Abruzzo and Calabria and typically wear bright red jackets and broad-brimmed hats with red tassels.
In Rome, the pipers play at the Christmas market in the historic Piazza Navona, on the Spanish Steps and at the entrance to St. Peter's Square. Figures of the zampognari often feature in nativity scenes.

In Italy, the Christmas season is so anticipated that the religious celebration begins early in December and continues throughout the month.
Gifts are sometimes exchanged on December 25, but some families wait until Epiphany, a holiday celebrated on January 6, to formally exchange presents.

How to Celebrate an Italian Christmas Instructions

Things You'll Need
  • Christmas Gifts
  • Decorative Stationery
  • Nativity Scenes
  • Fish
  • Tortellini
  • Wines

Step One

Create a handmade "presepe," or Nativity scene, as elaborate as your family can afford to make it. This model of a manger is an important part of an Italian Christmas celebration, as the manger scene originated in Italy.

Step Two

Plan for your family to meet in front of this Nativity scene each morning of novena (a nine-day religious period that begins on December 6) to recite prayers.

Step Three

Build a "ceppo," the Italian version of the Christmas tree. Resembling a ladder, the ceppo is formed by linking two wooden sides with wooden shelves.

Step Four

Decorate your ceppo by placing the presepe on the bottom shelf and gifts and decorations on other shelves.

Step Five

Send your children out in your neighborhood to recite Christmas poems.

Step Six

Plan to fast all day on Christmas Eve, and go to church if this is an important part of your Christmas celebration.

Step Seven

Break the fast with an elaborate Christmas Eve banquet, called the "pronzo delta vigilia." This meal, which contains no meat, should consist of foods such as fish and seafood soup or stew, cannoli (an Italian pastry) and other treats.

Step Eight

Remember that on Christmas Eve your children should provide you with a letter written on decorative stationery with their promises to behave during the coming year.

Step Nine

Prepare an elaborate Christmas Day meal for family and friends. Serve antipasti and pasta with walnut cream sauce; top it off with "panettone," or Christmas cake, and espresso.

Step Ten

Serve wine and "spumante" (Italian sparkling wine) in honor of this special day. Play "tombola" (bingo) or card games with your guests.

Step Eleven

Plan to exchange gifts with your children on Christmas Day or on January 6 during the feast of Epiphany.

Step Twelve

Remember the legend of the holiday, which is that La Befana (or Epiphany) was sweeping her floor when the three wise men came to her door and asked her to accompany them to Bethlehem. She declined in order to finish her task, but later had an epiphany of what she had missed, and since then is said to wander from door to door looking for the Christ Child.

Step Thirteen

Expect La Befana to arrive at your house bearing gifts for your children, if they have behaved especially well. Understand that she could come in the form of a fairy, a witch or a crone.

One of the most important ways of celebrating Christmas in Italy is the Nativity crib scene. Using a Nativity scene to help tell the Christmas story was made very popular by St. Francis of Assisi in 1223 (Assisi is in mid-Italy). The previous year he had visited Bethlehem and saw where it was thought that Jesus was born. A lot of Italian families have a Nativity scene in their homes.
The city of Naples in Italy is world famous for its Nativity scenes. These are known as 'Presepe Napoletano' (meaning Neapolitan Nativity/cribs scenes).
The first Nativity scene in Naples is thought to go back to 1025 and was in the Church of S. Maria del presepe (Saint Mary of the Nativity), this was even before St. Francis of Assisi had made Nativity scenes very popular!

Il Natale è una festa cristiana che celebra la nascita di Gesù ("Natività"): cade il 25 dicembre per tutte le Chiese cristiane: ma del calendario gregoriano per quelle romano-occidentali e del calendario giuliano per quelle romano-orientali, cioè il 7 gennaio (con ritardo attuale di 13 giorni). Oggi però anche le Chiese greco-ortodosse, con eccezione di quelle slavo-ortodosse e delle Chiese orientali (siriache o copte), si sono adeguate al calendario gregoriano, pur mantenendo il calendario giuliano per la loro tradizionale liturgia.
Secondo il calendario liturgico è una solennità di importanza superiore all'Ascensione e alla Pentecoste, ma inferiore alla Pasqua, la festa cristiana più importante. È comunque la festa più popolarmente sentita tra i cristiani; anche se in tempi più recenti ha assunto nella cultura occidentale sempre più un significato laico, con lo scambio di doni, legato alla famiglia e a figure del folclore religioso cristiano o pagano come Babbo Natale.
Sono strettamente legate alla festività la tradizione del presepe e dell'albero di Natale, entrambe di origine medioevale; la seconda più legata ai Paesi del Nord Europa.


Calendari europei sulle manifestazioni natalizie in Italia e nel resto del Mondo.

Se hai già visitato uno dei tanti mercatini di Natale che si svolgono in molte località d’Italia nel periodo natalizio, sai a cosa si allude quando si parla di “atmosfera magica”.
Stradine e piazze del centro storico gremite, la neve e i guanti, i luccichii del Natale, i profumi sprigionati dai prodotti del territorio, l’odore delle caldarroste e la musica che ricorda l’infanzia…
Ma anche artigianato della tradizione locale, bevande che scaldano le mani, oggetti che diventano ricordi di un luogo meraviglioso.
Non è solo questo il significato dei mercatini di Natale. Sono una vera favola che rendono ancora più magica l’atmosfera del periodo più bello dell’anno; da vivere in coppia, con amici o con i bambini, i mercatini di Natale sono speciali perché adatti a tutte le età: gli adulti tornano ad essere piccini, e i bambini si sentono come i protagonisti (magari il loro personaggio preferito) di un film sul Natale.
Ecco perché chiunque dovrebbe cedere alla voglia di mercatini…
Ce ne sono tanti e ogni città ha la sua peculiarità e le sue tradizioni:

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