Holiday Season in Italy Christmas Italy Santa Claus Epiphany
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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.

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.

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

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.
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  • Although Sims Brannon is not of Italian descent, this mouth-watering recipe for Christmas biscotticomes straight from his childhood in Tennessee.
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  • 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 festivityfor Christmas and Epiphany. Here's a list you'll want to keep for future trips.
  • Here's an interesting siteabout 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 HollyBuon Natale! Felice Anno Nuovo! Merry Christmas! Happy New Year!

Christmas Presents - Regali di Natale

Christmas tree at the Colisseum, Rome © AP 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.

In Venice and Mantova, it’s Santa Lucia who brings the presents, while in some regions it’s Baby Jesus, Gesu' Bambino, who bears the gifts. But nowadays, 90% of Italians also believe in Santa Claus or Father Christmas, Babbo Natale.

Decorations Food & Drink - Cibi e Bevande


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.

Torrone © Fototeca ENIT - Vito ArcomanoLunch, 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.

Panettone 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.

Zampognaro © Fototeca ENIT - Vito ArcomanoQuirky 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.

Tips & Warnings

  • Although there are typically no elaborate holiday decorations in Italy, you can expect to see the words "Buon Natale" displayed in shop windows, wishing people a good Christmas.
  • Some families in Italy have a Christmas tree, decorated as it would be in America.
  • Children in some areas of Italy believe that Jesus Christ delivers presents.
  • Italy is a country with many ethnic and cultural influences, so Christmas traditions are diverse and cannot be generalized. The preceding steps represent a few local traditions that may or may not be appropriate for your personal celebration of Christmas.
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