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Christmas in Italy

Updated January 16, 2022
Christmas in Italy

Christmas in Italy is a truly wonderful season that carries a unique atmosphere, making this picturesque country feel even more magical.

Good news – the Italian Christmas season starts early, so you have over a month to enjoy the festivals and celebrations.

Although some Italian Christmas customs resemble those we observe in America, they still differ in details.

For instance, Italian carollers don’t sing God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen, and Italian Christmas pudding doesn’t contain plums or alcohol.

Most Christmas traditions in Italy revolve around the religious facet of the holiday.

The Nativity Scene is displayed in nearly every home, and most Italians attend the Midnight Mass.

Some Italian Christmas traditions are truly unique, such as bagpipers dressed as shepherds and receiving gifts from a good witch la Befana.

Meatless la Vigilia

Italian Christmas Eve feast is known as la Vigilia. It commemorates the wait for Christ’s birth and doesn’t involve meat dishes but rather fish and vegetables. Traditionally, la Vigilia consists of seven fish dishes.

The tradition originated in the south of Italy and has later spread across the entire country, as well as to Italian-American communities in the USA in the 19th century.

In fact, it was customary for all Christians to refrain from meat before Christmas.

This practice was known as the Nativity Fast, which was introduced by Bishop Perpetuus of Tours, who died in 490. Initially, Christians had to refrain from food entirely for three days a week from November 11th to Christmas.

But over time, the rules became less strict, and most Catholics abolished the tradition. Italians, however, transformed the Nativity Fast into la Vigilia.

Fish may have been chosen as the main dish of the feast because it has a special symbolism in Christianity. It represents Christ himself.

Fish translates as “ictys” to Greek, which is an acronym for “Iesous Christos, Theou Yios, Soter” – “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.”

Gifts from la Befana

Most European and American kids anticipate Christmas mainly to receive gifts from Santa Claus. Italian children, however, believe in his female version – la Befana.

You’ve likely envisioned la Befana as sort of Missis Claus, but she’s actually a kind witch.

Like Santa, la Befana visits children on Christmas Eve and Epiphany to fill their stockings with gifts or coal, depending on their behavior.

The origin of la Befana is debated. Some suggest her name is derived from Italian for Epiphany, “Festa dell’Epifania.” Others claim it is a version of the Roman goddess of purification and wellbeing, Strenia.

La Befana is a great housekeeper, so Italians believe she will sweep the floor before she leaves for the next home.

Some also say that la Befana will get angry if she visits an untidy home, so Italians consider pre-Christmas cleaning a big deal.

As a proper witch should, la Befana wears a cloak, a black shawl and rides a broomstick. So, don’t be surprised if you visit Italy on Christmas and see all houses decorated with witch figurines!

Nativity Scene

Displaying a Nativity Scene isn’t uncommon in the USA, but in Italy, it’s among the most important Christmas traditions.

Italian Nativity Scenes tend to be much more elaborate than American. They often consist of multiple levels, one depicting Jesus’ crib and others featuring fruits, small gifts, and candles on top.

Sometimes, the scenes take a modern twist are introduce contemporary characters, such as pizza makers, footballers, or politicians. Of course, that’s more tourist entertainment than a serious tradition.

In other cases, you can come across full-sized, beautifully detailed Nativity Scenes set up in museums, shopping malls, and on city streets.

Naples is known as the capital of the Nativity Scene. The street Via San Gregorio Armeno is covered in shops selling Christmas figurines, including those for the Nativity Scene, from traditional to wacky.

Such popularity of Nativity Scenes in the region is no wonder, as they are believed to have originated in Italy. The first Nativity Scene known to historians was set up by Saint Francis in a cave in Greccio in 1223.

Bagpipers

This Italian Christmas tradition may seem more suitable for Scotland, but hey, traditions are an odd thing. In many Italian towns, you can encounter men dressed as shepherds playing bagpipes, known as zampognari.

While this may be surprising, the tradition isn’t modern – it originated in ancient Roman times. Originally, bagpipers would make their way from the mountains to towns playing along the way to earn some money on the side.

The reason bagpipers are dressed as shepherds is simple – shepherds were the first in Bethlehem to celebrate Jesus’ birth.

Caroling

Caroling as the house-visiting tradition originated in Britain in pagan times but has since spread across entire Europe and the USA. However, the first Nativity hymns were written in Latin in the fifth century.

In the 13th century, Saint Francis, who is known for creating the first Nativity scene, came up with the idea of combining joyful melodies with religious poems, introducing the first Christmas carol in the modern understanding of the term.

Perhaps, the most famous Italian Christmas carol is Astro Del Ciel, the translation of Silent Night. The first Christmas carol Italian children learn is Tu Scendi Dalle Stelle, translating as “you come down from the stars.”

In Italy, caroling is merely considered children’s entertainment. They visit houses eight days before Christmas Eve.

Midnight Mass

For Italians, Christmas remains a deeply religious holiday. On Christmas Eve, many families attend churches for the Midnight Mass.

And those who reside in or are visiting Rome go to the Vatican to hear the Midnight Mass hosted by the Pope.

The Midnight Mass usually starts at 9.30 pm, and everyone is welcome to attend. It’s also broadcasted on TVs for those who live far away or haven’t managed to get to the Vatican for a different reason.

For many Italians, watching the Midnight Mass on TV is just as important as for the British watching the Queen’s Christmas speech.

Skiing

Italy is full of mountains that are covered in snow throughout the entire winter. It’s no wonder that one of the favorite Christmas entertainments for Italians is skiing or snowboarding.

Italians love to visit skiing resorts with their entire family or friends.

Some of the best resort include Cortina d’Ampezzo, Val Gardena, Breuil-Cervinia, and Valtournenche. The bravest can even ski from Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in Italy.

However, not everyone gets a chance to visit a skiing resort for the holidays. Those who stay in the city go ice skating, shopping, visit Verona’s Nativity Scene festival Natale in Arena, attend opera and ballet, or go to Christmas markets.

Italian Christmas Foods

Some Italian Christmas food is similar to that in the USA but still carries that unique Italian vibe.

For instance, the Italian version of Christmas pudding is called panettone. It has a cylindrical shape and traditionally is about five inches high.

Unlike Christmas pudding, panettone is made with sourdough and doesn’t contain any alcohol or dried plum.

Instead, it contains raisins, citrus zest, and, sometimes, chocolate. Panettone is served along with sweet wine and mascarpone cream. Italians also commonly eat glazed ham.

Of course, the traditional Italian Christmas dinner can’t suffice without exclusively Italian dishes, most of which include fish.

Some of the recipes worth trying are pasta with mussels, shrimp scampi, spaghetti with frutti di mare, and cod bites.

Italian favorite meat dishes include lasagna Bolognese (obviously), meatballs, and rigatoni with lamb. These are usually accompanied by mulled wine or prosecco.

Talking about mulled wine, Italians use a slightly different from American preparation method. Italian mulled wine is known as Vin Brulé.

Regular mulled wine is boiled for a short time that allows the alcohol to remain, while in Vin Brulé, it’s boiled out completely.

Other Italian Christmas drinks are hot chocolate, often mixed with orange or mint, and amaretto coffee.

Christmas Markets

Christmas markets can be found in many European counties, and Italy is no exception.

They sell all sorts of Christmas tree ornaments, gingerbread, mulled wine, and other holiday foods and drinks, figurines for Nativity Scenes, gifts, toys, and various handicrafts.

The best-known Christmas markets in Italy are Piazza Walther in Bolzano, Piazza Castello in Milan, Piazza Navona in Rome, and River Passirio in Merano. If you ever visit Italy for holidays, don’t miss a chance to see them!

Extended Celebrations

If you think that no one loves celebrating Christmas more than Americans, you haven’t heard of Italian Christmas. The holiday season in Italy officially lasts from December 8th to January 6th, the Epiphany.

The Christmas season commences with the Immaculate Conception celebration. This day marks the conception of Mary rather than Jesus.

Catholics believe that the conception was immaculate because God absolved Mary of original sin despite her being born the usual biological way.

December 8th is an official holiday, and many Italians spend it decorating their homes for Christmas. A cannon is fired at the Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome.

The eight-day period before Christmas is known as Novena and commemorates the journey of shepherds to Jesus. As you already know, during this period, children go caroling, particularly in rural areas.

Image credit: Unsplash

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