All you need to know about the Italian Santa, Babbo Natale, and the traditions associated with Santa in Italy.
There are many Christmas traditions in Italy but ask any child and you’ll quickly see that one character dominates the Italian Christmas experience for little ones: Babbo Natale, Italian Santa Claus!
Babbo Natale is at the center of the gift-giving tradition of Christmas in Italy.
Like in many other countries, Italian children write letters to Babbo Natale, ensuring good behavior in exchange for gifts under the Christmas tree.
They expect him to come at night on the 24/25 December and they know he will come on a magical sleight pulled by flying reindeer.
Ask them to draw him and you’ll see Italian Santa Babbo Natale looking exactly like the Santa you are most likely picturing right now: a jolly, large man with a white beard, a huge belly and a red outfit with white fur trimmings.
If this Italian Santa sounds very familiar, you are right!
There is nothing specific about Babbo Natale to make him different from Santa Claus, as he is known in the US or the UK and there is a very good reason for it.
The Santa Claus tradition is not originally Italian. We borrowed him from abroad but then we liked him so much that we made him part of the Italian Christmas!
So, while Santa does come to Italian kids, there is hardly anything in his story that is specifically Italian.
However, there are some fascinating Italian traditions connected to Saint Nick.
In this article, I share all you need to know about Babbo Natale, San Nicola and some traditional Christian figures in Italy kids of previous generations especially love.
Good to know! A more ancient Italian Christmas tradition is that of the nativity scene or presepe. Read here >>> all you need to know bout Ialaun nativity scenes.
Santa in Italian
Santa exists in Italy and his Italian name is Babbo Natale, which literally translates as Father Christmas.
Babbo = father (Babbo is a common word for ‘father’ in several Italian regions and universally understood in Italy)
Natale = Christmas (From Latin: dies natalis, day of birth = day of the nativity)
You can hear his name in expressions such as:
Caro Babbo Natale = dear father Christmas
Che cosa hai chiesto a Babbo Natale = what have you asked Father Christmas
E’ venuto Babbo Natale = has Father Christmas come?
Occasionally, you may also hear him called Papa’ Natale (papa’ = daddy); however, the most common name is Babbo Natale, even in regions that don’t otherwise use the word babbo.
The name Santa is known but not commonly used in Italy.
However, this is slowly changing due to the dominance of marketing and Christmas movies that are popularizing the name Santa as an alternative to Babbo Natale.
Santa in Italy: traditions at home
Santa’s tradition in Italy is largely molded over foreign uses and has very little if any, specificity.
Babbo Natale is understood to travel the world in one night, leaving his quarters at the North Pole to reach all the children of the world thanks to a magical flying sleigh pulled by reindeer.
A jolly man, Italian Santa wears a red outfit with white fir trimmings and black boots and goes around with a large sack of presents made by elves in the Santa workshops back in Lapland.
Santa in Italy comes at night, between the 24th and the 25th of December.
In some cases, he comes late at night so that children find presents under the Christmas tree on the morning of the 25th of December.
However, in some cases, Babbo Natale gets to Italy early and presents are ready at the stroke of midnight!
The time at which Santa arrives in Italy depends on family traditions.
In my family, Babbo Natale comes in the middle of the night and the present opening moment is the morning of the 25th of December.
In some of my friend’s houses, Santa is faster and manages to deliver gifts, unseen, during the big Italian Christmas eve dinner, while people are too busy to notice his magical wanderings.
Good to know: if you are invited to Christmas even dinner in Italy, it is worth asking at what time Santa usually shows up so you can be ready!
While waiting for Babbo Natale, Italian children may or may not leave out for him and Rudolph a carrot and a glass of milk.
If they do, this is usually a fun thing to do borrowed from American movies and not an Italian tradition.
However, it is so fun for them and makes the whole night so much more magical that it’s now becoming more mainstream.
It is not, however, something even my parents or grandparents would have been familiar with: they had other beings carrying presents, see below!
Italian Christyjas figures that are not Santa / Father Christmas / Babbo Natale
I grew up with Babbo Natale bringing me gifts on Christmas morning but my parents did not.
The traditional Christmas-gift-bearing figures in Italy for the previous generations were others, in particular:
La Befana – La Befana, in English often referred to as Italy’s Christmas, which, is a very ancient character connected with the celebration of the Epiphany, the 6th of January.
In the Christian tradition, the 6th of January is the day when the Three Wise Men or the Three Kings arrive at the stable where baby Jesus was born bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
This event is still celebrated in Italy with a day off and, over the century, lead to the development of a story that say a which called Befana bringing gifts to good children.
La Befana was the character bringing presents to my mom when she was a child and she is still part of Italian family traditions, albeit in a slightly different way now.
Now that Babbo Natale / Santa is the one bearing gifts, on the 6th of January, she brings sweets to the good children and coal to the naughty ones!
La Befana is ancient character and elements of her story give away how far back in time her story goes.
One is her name: Befana is a corruption of the word Epifania (Epiphany> ebiphany > Befana)
The other one is that she brings coal, in pagan times a good luck gift signifying fertility and abundance.
San Nicola – San Nicola is another traditional figure connected with the season of Christmas and, more precisely, with the day of the 6th of December, when the Saint Anniversary falls.
The story San Nicola (St Nicholas, Saint Nick) says that the Saint, when young, noticed three street children plagued by poverty and hunger. Taken by compassion, he gifted them some apples.
During the night, the turned into gold, ensuring the children a life off the street.
Since then, San Nicola has been considered the protective Saint of children and is associated with children receiving gifts or apples on the 6th of December in memory of his original generous act.
San Nicola is beloved in Bari where his body rests.
However, he is also traditional in several other areas of Italy, including Val Gardena (Dolomites), Friuli Venezia Giulia and Liguria, under the name San Nicola or also San Niccolo.
Santa Lucia – Santa Lucia is celebrated on the 13th of December and is a major Saint in Italian tradition, her name being connected to light and its triumph over darkness (of faith over paganism but also, in more ancient terms, of the coming of the solstice after the darkness of winter)
Santa Lucia brings gifts to the children on the night between the 12th of December and the 13th, her anniversary date.
Before that day, children write letters to her asking for presents and, at the night, they leave biscotti and Vin Santo for her and a handful of hey for the donkey she travels with.
Santa Lucia is most celebrated in the north of Italy (Trentino, Fruli, Lombardia). However, her tradition is less widespread in Italy now that Santa has taken over the Christmas magic entirely.
Most Italian children do not know about these more ancient figures, the only one still going strong being La befana.
Fun fact: the night od Santa Lucia is said to be ‘the longest of the year’ and Lucia is therefore associated with the triumph of light over darkness, as the days start getting longer on her anniversary. This does not match the day of the solstice; however, it did before the reformation of the calendar in the XVI century. This is why in Italy we still say: Santa Lucia, il giorno piu’ corto che ci sia – Santa <ucia, the longest night there is’.
Where to see Santa in Italy
Italian children meet commercial Santas in many places, ranging from shopping malls to theme parks and markets.
Wherever you are in Italy, you are likely to find a Santa; however, some places go all out to help children meet Babbo Natale.
Among the best Santa Experiences in Italy, there are:
Christmas markets – find a selection of the best Christmas markets in Italy here
Piedmont: Castello di Govone – a fantastic castle in Piedmont where kids can visit Italian Santa’s Home, elf workshop and a lovely Christmas market
Milan: Giardino delle Meraviglie in Parco Indro Montanelli, where kids can meet Santa but also go ice skating and enjoy the carousels, stalls and rides
Riva del Garda (Veneto) – one of the best Santa houses (Casa di Babbo Natale in Italy) where children can meet the Big Man Himself, listen to him telling stories during story time, and see the elves’ workshop and even play dress up.
Bussolengo (Veneto) – another stunning Christmas village near Verona, here kids find Santa but also ice skating opportunities, stalls, an elves’ workshop, Christmas food and more
Jesolo (Veneto) – Jesolo is also home to a lovely Christmas set up and it is also a great place to see nativity scenes, a very ancient and important Italian Christmas tradition
Gubbio – Gubbio is stunning all year round but turnes really magical for kids at Christmas when the city hosts Christmasland, a large Christmas event during which children can meet Santa, the elves, admire one of the largest nativity scenes in Italy and have more than their fair share of chocolate in La Magia del Cioccolateo, chocolate exhibition and workshop.
Santa in Italian: useful words and expressions
Santa = Babbo Natale
Father Christmas = Babbo Natale
Sleight = slitta
Presents / gifts = regali / regali di Natale
Santa’s Sack = sacco di Babbo Natale
Letter to Santa = letterina a Babbo Natale (lit; small letter to father Christmas)
Elf / elves = elfo /elfi
Helper = aiutante (Santa’s helper = aiutante di Babbo Natale)
Nice = buoni / bravi (i bambini buoni / i bravi bambini = nice children)
Naughty = cattivi (I bambini cattivi = the naughty children)
Rudolph the red nose raindeer = Rudolph (the same)
Christmas tree = albero di Natale
Chimney = camino, caminetto
I hope you enjoyed this quick overview about Babbo Natale / Italian Santa and that it helped you plan your magical Christmas in Italy. Buon Natale (Merry Christmas in Italian).
Santa in Italy – pin this!
Santa in Italy / Italian Santa questions and answers
Is there Santa Claus in Italy?
YES. Italian children called Santa Claus Babbo Natale. Santa and Babbo Natale are the same person: they dress in red and carry gifts to the nice children delivering them on the night of the 24/25 of December with the aid of a magical sleigh pulled by flying reindeer.
Do Italian children believe in Santa Claus?
Yes, we call Santa Claus ‘Babbo Natale’, write letters to him and wait with anticipation his magical appearance every Christmas
What do children leave for Santa in Italy?
Some children leave for Santa a glass of milk, biscuits and a carrot for Rudolph. This is not an ancient Italian tradition but a new one borrowed from abroad (American Christmas movies popularized it here). While popular, it is not yet overly common.
What is Santa called in Italy?
In Italy, Santa is called Babbo Natale, which translates as Father Christmas.