Italian Christmas traditions: what to expect if visiting Italy at Christmas and how to replicate Italy Christmas traditions at home.
Christmas is a huge festivity in Italy.
A largely Catholic country, Italy has always celebrated Christmas for its religious significance but many of its traditions have slowly gotten out of the spiritual realm and have become part of Italian culture across all beliefs and backgrounds.
If you happen to be in Italy in December, these are the most important Italian Christmas traditions you should know about.
Italian Christmas traditions in December
8th of December – the Immaculate conception (Immacolata)
Christmas season starts in Italy on the 8th of December, when the country celebrates l’Immacolata, the day of the Immaculate Conception.
The Immaculate Conception is a catholic festivity and celebrates the conception of the Virgin Mary as free from original sin and it is now a national holiday, with schools and offices closed.
Despite the religious origin of the day, modern Italy associates this day with a rather more prosaic Christmas tradition: that of making the Christmas tree!
On this day, households around the country decorate a fir tree that will stay up until the 6th of January (see below)
The Christmas tree in Italy
The tradition of decorating a Christmas tree is not Italian in origin however, it is so widespread that Christmas without a tree in Italy would be simply inconceivable.
People decorate Christmas trees in private homes and towns and cities also decorate huge ones, usually in the main city piazzas and at important landmarks.
Two Christmas trees are worth of notice:
- The Christmas tree at the Vatican, which is usually one of the most beautiful in Italy
- The Christmas tree of Gubbio, in Umbria, which is not a real tree but a tree made of lights, developing over the slope of the local mountain – this is beautiful and record breaking, being the tallest Christmas tree in the world!
The Nativity Scenes
Italy has a huge tradition of nativity scenes, small or large creations depicting the the nativity of Jesus.
Nativity scenes come in all shapes and sizes.
In their simplest form, they are made with small figurines of Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, the donkey, the ox and some shepherds however, they can also be real works of art, with figurines made by master artisans and they can also be living scenes!
You can find nativity scenes everywhere in Italy: in cities like Rome you will have them in churches mainly but in many others you will have them in local popular areas such as squares and close to big landmarks.
An area especially famous for the nativity scene tradition is that of Naples, where you can visit the Via San Gregorio Armeno and see the master figurine makers all year round!
A nativity scene of notice is that at the Vatican: the exact scene changes every year and it is usually connected to a charitable cause.
For instance, in recent years, the scene depicted the front of a sea vessel, to recall the tragedy of the migrants losing their life at sea.
You can read how to visit the Vatican at Christmas and Christmas in Rome here.
Christmas markets in Italy
Christmas markets are traditional in the Northeast of Italy and the Dolomites, when you have as strong Germanic cultural influence but they have become more and more popular in other locations too and you now find them if not everywhere, in a good variety of places!
This is the list of the best Christmas markets in Italy.
Zampognari is the Italian word for those who play ‘zampogne’ a musical instrument somewhat similar to a pagpipe.
Zampognari are typical of the Christmas season, the special sound of the zampogne being one of the more evocative of this time, and they used to play in public spaces all over Italy.
The tradition is slowly dying, especially in bigger centers, but you can still see them at Christmas events and markets: their look and skills are connected to the shepherd’s traditions of central and Southern Italy and are one of the most typical Italian Christmas traditions of all.
24th December – Christmas eve
Christmas eve is a big deal in Italy and the day when Christmas festivities truly kick off in style.
The morning is still a working day for many but the afternoon is usually a short one, with offices and shops closing early to allow preparation for the first big meal of the season: Christmas eve dinner!
Christmas eve dinner is a big family affair in Italy with a special tradition: that of eating fish only.
The idea of the fish dinner comes from the religious tradition of avoiding meat on this day (giorno di magro) but this has quickly turned into an opportunity to offer your guests a fish-based banquet!
On this night, a family usually come together and feast on seafood, fish and Christmas sweets: you can find the most typical Italian Christmas eve traditions and foods here.
Christmas eve peaks for many into one of two events: religious families will go to Midnight Mass to the local church while non religious families may start the ritual of opening presents.
The opening presents tradition changes from family to family: while some open them the moment the clock strikes midnight, others prefer to do it the day after, before or after the big Christmas lunch.
Need to know: if you are in Italy on this day, finding a restaurant for dinner can be tricky and expensive. Advance planning is necessary.
25th December – Christmas Day
The 25ht of December, Christmas Day, is the biggest celebration of all and Italy usually marks it with big family lunches.
How the day pans out is usually down to the personal preference of the family but all Italian households as in common one thing: the food!
Christmas means big banquets and there is no prescriptive traditional Christmas meal as such.
While many now like the idea of the turkey, usually as a tongue in cheek nod to foreign traditions, each family has their own Christmas preferred food, usually one or more pasta dishes, meat, sides and desserts.
This is the meal where you can still see the traditional Italian meal structure in full force!
Desserts are the most traditional part of the Christmas meal and they include panettone, pandoro, torrone and panforte as staples. You can read about traditional Italian Christmas foods here.
Need to know: if you are in Italy on this day, finding a restaurant can be tricky and expensive. Advance planning is necessary.
26th December – Santo Stefano
The day after Christmas Day, the 26th Of December, is the day Italy celebrates Santo Stefano (St. Stephen), and it is again a national holiday.
The tradition of Santo Stefano as a day off only started in 1949 and while the Saint is what is remembered on this day, this is vastly perceived as just another day to rest and try get over the eating of the day before!
31st December – New Years Eve
Italy celebrates the start of the new year with big celebrations not dissimilar to those you find in other parts of the world: festive dinner, toasts and firework.
One tradition you will find in Italy only however has to do with food: on this night, you usually serve ‘cotechino con le lenticchie‘ as pork leg with lentils.
This dish is typical of New Year and has a special meaning: lentils symbolize money and the more you have, the more money you will enjoy in the year ahead!
In Italy it is also typical to wear red on new years eve and one of the traditions is to wear red underwear that you then throw out the day after, for good fortune.
Italian Christmas traditions in January
6th January – the Epiphany
Italian Christmas traditions don’t stop with the start of the new year: Christmas ends in Italy on the 6th of January, the day of the epiphany that is said to ‘take away the holidays’ (L’epifania, tutte le feste porta via).
The 6ht of January is an important day in Italy under a couple of accounts.
The church celebrates this day as the day when the Three Kings arrived to see baby Jesus, an event usually marked by the addition of their figurines to the nativity scenes.
Families with kids welcome this day as the day when a magical visit arrives: la Befana.
She is an old lady who, on the night between the 5th and 6th of January, goes to family homes to leave sweets for the good kids and coal to the naughty ones! She is much loved in Italy and you can read about her here.
Other Italian Christmas traditions you may like
6th December – San Nicola
On the 6th of December, the city of Bari in Puglia celebrates San Nicola, patron of the city and of children. This is a big celebration in the city marked with religious services, processions and fireworks.
The arrival of San Nicola or St Nicholas is also celebrated in Trentino Alto Adige, following a tradition also common in Northern European countries such as the Netherlands.
13th December – Santa Lucia
The 13th of December is the day of Santa Lucia, who represents the light in the heart of winter.
While this is not a day off, this is an important day in Italy and many cities would have some special event to mark the day and religious services for the occasion.
I hope you enjoyed this quick overview of Italian Christmas traditions. Buon Natale (that’s Merry Christmas in Italian)!