Christmas Celebrations and Traditions in Italy

Christmas in Italy: Celebrations and Traditions

Traveling in Italy during the Christmas season can be magical. Most visitors to Italy only think of the Mediterranean summers, but December is a great time to visit the peninsula. Tour Italy’s greatest cities under the twinkling lights of Christmas. It’s the most festive time of the year and the atmosphere and spirit of celebration are addictive!

The holiday season in Italy starts with the Immaculate Conception on December 8th, when cities’ Christmas lights are turned on and Italians officially bring out the Christmas decorations and set up their tree or Nativity scene. Though it’s slightly later than most American’s day-after-Thanksgiving approach, in Italy the holiday season doesn’t end until the Epiphany on January 6th. The Italian word for Christmas is Natale.  There’s a Father Christmas character in Italy, too, although he’s called Babbo Natale, and he’s not the one who leaves gifts for kids in stockings.

A predominately Catholic country, the two most important dates for the season are Christmas Eve on December 24th to the Epiphany on January 6th. For Italians, Christmas is primarily a family-oriented holiday. There are some public celebrations, to be sure, but much of what makes Christmas special in Italy is private. Traditions vary from region to region, even from family to family.

Though winter is the low season for travel to Italy, Christmastime does see a spike in visitors, as other Europeans have time off and tourists from all over plan their trip to take in the beautiful sights and smells of the holiday season in Italy. Thinking of visiting Italy at Christmas, then here is everything you need to know about the holiday season in Italy:

Italian Holiday Traditions

Italians are champions of tradition and there’s no better time to see that than the holidays, when each symbol, event and meal are reminders of the magic of the season. No matter where you’re coming from, there are a few things you can expect to see during the holiday season in Italy:Christmas in Italy: Celebrations and Traditions

Christmas markets in Italy

Some Christmas markets start as early as the last few days of November, but most are up and running by the first week of December and last 3 – 8 weeks. A good Christmas market is a feast for the senses, with delicious smells, warm desserts and drinks, handcrafted wares and atmospheric lights. Though this tradition is mostly attributed to Germany and Austria, Italians love their Christmas markets as much as their northern neighbors. In December, you can find Christmas markets in most cities throughout Italy.

Some of our favorite Christmas markets: Travelers who want to experience the quintessential Christmas Market should visit the “Big Three”, in towns that are close to each other: Bolzano, Trento, and Merano. Bolzano’s Christmas market recently became eco-friendly, with wooden stands and local products only. In Florence the historical Santa Croce Piazza fills with a market hailing directly from Germany for the entire month of December or head to Piazza Navona in Rome.

Christmas lights and Christmas trees

Few people in Italy decorate their house or garden with Christmas lights, but each and every town center will be positively lit up with lights and sparkling decorations. Some favorites are Ferrara, Turin, Milan and Rome. Beyond that, you can expect big cities to have a massive pine tree decorated for the season, usually located in front of the Duomo. There’s one in Florence, Milan, Naples and Venice, but perhaps the most impressive is Rome, which has not one, but several Christmas trees throughout the city. You can usually find a tree near the Colosseum, in Piazza Venezia, on Capitoline Hill and, of course, in St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican City.Christmas in Italy: Celebrations and Traditions

Traditional meals for Christmas

Fish is the traditional meal served on Christmas Eve, as Italians avoid meat and large meals in fasting and preparation for Christmas Day. After dinner many families attend their local midnight Mass. On Christmas Day, families feast the entire day, with a large lunch that usually has multiple courses and dozens of servings. Though every family is different, some regions have specific food traditions for Christmas Day. From panettone to pandoro, from torrone to panpepato and from marron glace to tronchetto di Natale, this season brings out dozens of seasonal sweets and cakes.

Regional celebrations

As always in Italy, you can expect different traditions from different regions. Italy is a nation of city-states and though it’s one country, each area is fiercely proud of its own traditions and culture. Some dates, like December 8th, are national holidays, but there are other important holiday dates for individual regions. For example, Abruzzo celebrates St. Nicholas on December 6th, the generous saint’s feast day, with the nonni dressing up as St. Nicholas and giving gifts to children. The Milanese celebrate their patron saint, St. Ambrose, in style on December 7th, and those from Bergamo (as well as other towns) exchange gifts on December 13th, St. Lucy’s Day, rather than Christmas day.

St. Lucy, or Santa Lucia, is also celebrated in Syracuse, Sicily, where where she’s celebrated with a huge parade that ends in a firework display over the harbor in one of the biggest celebrations of the year. Research in advance your Italian destinations to see the extra events and celebrations they may have in December.

Nativity scenes in Italylive nativity sets in italy

Nativity Scenes, or presepe (presepi-plural), are super popular in Italy. They can be found throughout town and in nearly every Italian home. Some families don’t even put up a tree in lieu of a nativity! These can be super small or enormous, elaborate affairs with collections growing by the generation. You can find the oldest Nativity in the museum of Santa Maria Maggiore Church in Rome, but the place to find hand-crafted Nativities is in Naples. Here the artisan craft is still going strong and you can shop, window shop or simply admire the skilled craftsmen at work on via San Gregorio Armeno. Sometimes called Christmas Alley, this long street in the historic city center has nativity scenes on sale year-round!

Besides these small works of art, another popular tradition in Italy is the “living nativity” with actors and sometimes entire villages as the set. Known as presepi viventi, often the locations are just as suggestive as the scene itself. Mantova in Lombardy has around 150 people featured, and the rocks, stones and caves of Matera make for the perfect setting for a reenacted Bethlehem. The town of Jesolo (Venice) creates a Nativity Scene completely out of sand.

The 2,000-year-old Roman amphitheater, the Arena of Verona (which hosts an amazing opera festival in the summertime), displays hundreds of nativity scenes every year. It’s an international event, with works on loan from museums, private collections, and craftsmen. In addition, Piazza Bra, which is just outside the Arena, hosts a Christmas market.

La Befana, the country’s happy witch

January 6th is another important holiday for the Italian Christmas season. Known as the Epiphany, this is celebrated as the day the three wise men finally reached baby Jesus. In Italy it’s celebrated by an ugly but friendly “witch” known as La Befana who comes during the night to fill children’s shoes or stockings with candy, toys and sweets, similar to a Christmas stocking in America. Remember: l’Epifania tutte le feste porta via, or with the Epiphany, the holiday season is officially over.Christmas in Italy: Celebrations and Traditions

Five tips for planning Christmas in Italy

  • Be sure you plan your visits to museums and sites in advance to avoid going when they are closed. If you happen to be there on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day or St. Stephen’s Day on December 26th, expect most everything to be closed. You’ll definitely want to book restaurants in advance for these days.
  • Winter in Italy in general means attractions and transportation schedules change, usually with fewer hours or fewer trains running. Winter is Italy’s low season, but Christmastime usually sees a spike in visitors and crowds and prices may reflect that.
  • Remember also that just how cold it is depends a lot on where in Italy you are visiting. Up north in the Alps you might be skiing, while down in Sicily you’ll be strolling along the sea with a warming sun, but expect rain.
  • Be aware that sunset in Italy in December is before 5 pm.
  • In general you should still bring a heavy coat, hat, gloves and warm, comfortable boots that can take you from day to night. Italian winters are humid, giving the air a chill even when the temperatures aren’t all that low and in northern Italy you might find rain or snow.Christmas in Italy: Celebrations and Traditions

Though cold in winter, many of the attractions that you’ll want to see are indoors, making winter just as nice a time as others. Not only that, but the decorations, operas and symphonies are running their programs, specialty foods, fewer crowds and festivals make touring around a pleasure, even if it’s cold. It’s a great opportunity for the traveler to participate in local traditions with Italians during a very important holiday.

We create authentic trip experiences in Italy that immerse you in the local culture. Contact Audrey to join one of our exclusive small group tours, or a customized private tour, and experience Italy as an insider! 

About Audrey De Monte

Born in New York City, to European native parents, and raised in Western Africa, I have studied, lived and worked on three continents (Africa, Europe and North America), and have traveled extensively throughout the world. Travel has shaped my life, who I am, and how I look at the world and travel continues to be my biggest teacher. Together with my native Italian husband, we speak 5 languages (French, Italian, German, Spanish and English of course). I have spent a lifetime in several countries in Western Europe, since early childhood, visiting family, friends, studying, living and working. I grew up with the local customs and traditions of these countries.