Italian Christmas traditions are steeped in food, family, and festivities. While local customs vary slightly depending on the region, there are some holiday traditions that permeate the entire country.
December 8th ushers in the official start of the Christmas season in Italy. On the Day of Immaculate Conception – a national public holiday in this Catholic country – schools and businesses are closed. Italian households gather to adorn the home with decorations, bake sweets, and put up their Christmas trees.
Towns both large and small erect intricate nativity scenes, known as presepi. You will see them in public parks, churches, and residents’ homes. The nativity scenes are painstakingly created and feature all types of materials from nuts and twigs to pasta. In addition to the traditional manger of Bethlehem, the presepi will often include modern touches like pizza-makers, local politicians or even sports stars.
Zampognari (bagpipe players) are another Christmas fixture in many Italian cities. The bagpipe players wear sheepskin vests and dress like shepherds, who visited baby Jesus on the evening he was born.
Whether strolling through the streets of Naples or Rome, you will likely come across cheerful Zampognari playing their melodic tunes.
While many Italian children are showered with gifts from Father Christmas or Santa Claus on December 24th, there are some families that still observe the tradition of 'La Befana.’ The Befana is an old lady, or good witch, who visits the children of Italy the night of January 5, Epiphany Eve. According to folklore, the Three Wise Men visited the old woman a few days before the birth of Jesus, asking for her help to find the son of God.
La Befana is often depicted as a smiling old woman riding a broomstick. She carries a bag filled with presents and candy to give to children who’ve been good.
Italy is a food-centric country, and Christmas celebrations reflect this passion for delicious cuisine. Many families will have their Christmas Eve dinner – known as the 'Feast of Seven Fishes', after evening Mass. The meal is seafood heavy – featuring an assortment of salted cod, calamari, swordfish, salmon, and oysters. The feast may also include stuffed ravioli, gnocchi, and other vegetarian dishes.
The Cenone or 'big dinner' takes place on Christmas day, when meat returns to center stage. The feast is usually followed by panettone, a typical Italian Christmas dessert that is more sweet bread than cake. Other dessert favorites include nougat candy, biscotti, spiced nut pastries, and cookies.
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