Christmas in Italy
The Christmas season in Italy starts on December 8th (Immaculate Conception) and ends on January 6th (Ephiphany). Christmas in Italy is festive, always spent with the family, with markets, lights, Christmas trees, and music in the streets. And the best part is that the Christmas season lasts an entire month!
Italy’s Christmas markets
The Christmas markets in Italy were inspired by German markets with stalls selling homemade jewelry and decorations. The stalls also serve traditional Italian food typically enjoyed at Christmas, such as caldarroste (large roasted chestnuts) washed down with vin brulè (mulled wine).
When: 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.
What to buy: Get your Christmas shopping done, and try local and traditional foods. You’ll find stands with vendors selling artisanal goods, tree decorations, and local specialties.
Here is a list of some of our favorite Christmas Markets in Italy:
Dolomites Mountains: 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. This part of Italy has Italy’s best Christmas markets, and each one has a beautiful Christmas tree.
Rome: The already-famous Piazza Navona becomes even more magical in December and January when it hosts a Christmas market.
Florence: Piazza Santa Croce is home to a wonderful Christmas market, with a nordic theme and gastronomic specialties from around the world.
Turin: Piazza Borgo Dora hosts food stands, merchant stalls, and a huge Christmas tree.
Grovone (Piedmont): called the Magical Christmas Village, has been nominated as one of Europe’s best Christmas markets. They also have the House of Santa Claus, set up every year inside the Royal Castle.
Best Places to See Christmas Trees in Italy
Below are some of the most popular places to see Christmas Trees on display in Italy. I also want to encourage you to check out the trees in smaller towns and villages. They’re often decorated beautifully, and the setting in a tiny square is magical.
- Piazza Walther in Bolzano
- St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City
- Monte Ingino above Gubbio
- Colosseum in Rome
- Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan
- Piazza del Duomo in Milan
- Piazza Santa Maria Novella in Florence
Nativity Scenes in Italy
A presepe (plural presepi and sometimes also called a presepio) is an Italian nativity scene, and is an important decoration that can be seen in every home from the 8th of December until the 6th of January. While a beautifully decorated Christmas tree is the main focus in many homes around the world at Christmas, in Italy the main focus is the presepio. From the 15th century and throughout the Middle Ages, nativity scenes were painted by artists like Botticelli, Giotto, and Piero della Francesca and displayed in churches. As the population couldn’t read, they needed a visual description of the birth of Jesus. Although there are presepe traditions from north to south in Italy, the city of Naples is still the most famous for the art of the presepe. This art reached its height in the 18th century, but the city still draws visitors from around the world to see its elaborate creations and figurines.
Here are some of our favorite nativity scenes in Italy:
- Rome: The Sala del Bramante in the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo houses 100 or more nativity scenes, from centuries-old to contemporary.
- Verona: 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.
- Cesenatico: This seaside town has a unique presepe staged on historic ships moored on the canal with life-sized wooden statues depicting daily life in an old fishing village.
- Ortisei: the small town in the Val Gardena in the Dolomites is famous for its woodworking, and many of the town’s artisans specialize in presepe.
- Santa Cristina in Val Gardena: this Dolomites town has the world’s largest hand-carved nativity scene.
- Venice (Burano): this Venetian island, famous for lace-making, has a presepe that emerges from the bottom of the Venice Lagoon.
- Venice (Jesolo): not only does it host an international sand sculpture festival, it also has a presepe made out of sand, which has been visited by around a million people!
Live nativity scenes: Living nativity scenes area a separate thing. Nativity scenes are composed of small figurines, but in a living nativity scene, real people dress up in a setting. These living nativity scenes, presepi viventi in Italian, are essentially performances. Therefore they are usually on a very limited number of days, for just a few hours at a time.
Good to Know: St. Francis of Assisi and the ‘Living’ Presepe. The first presepe is commonly attributed to St. Francis of Assisi. In 1220, St. Francis made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to visit Jesus’ birthplace and after his visit, on Christmas Day 1223 in the small town of Greccio, he set up the first presepe in history in a cave close to the village. Greccio still holds one of Umbria’s top Christmas events, an elaborate, live nativity with hundreds of participants.
Christmas Foods (a selection)
- Panettone, originally from Milan, Panettone is a sweet and fluffy bread with raisins that signals the start of the holiday season. A must for Christmas in Italy! With a typical dome shape, panettone’s is enriched by candied fruit, orange peel and raisins. This is the original recipe for panettone, panettone candito. In the last twenty years, artisan workshops have created numerous variations.
- Pandoro is a traditional Veronese sweet yeast star-shaped bread with a smooth consistency. It’s also typically dusted with powdered sugar. We usually eat Pandoro accompanied with a glass of Asti Spumante on New Year’s Eve.
- Panforte, from Siena, is also cake-like, but denser and very sweet. I enjoy Panforte paired with a glass of local dessert wine, vin santo. The origins of panforte trace back to the year 1000, when it was called ‘Christmas bread’ or ‘Pan Pepatus.’
- Torrone (nougat), the classic one is hard, made with honey and almonds, but there are many variants such as the soft version, which I prefer. In addition, you can find torrone made of milk chocolate and hazelnuts, dark chocolate torrone with hazelnuts, torrone made of gianduia chocolate and the classic torrone with pistachio.
- Roasted veal is a popular dish eaten on Christmas Day. You’ll find variations from a classic roast with potatoes to more elaborate versions.
- Struffoli is a typical Christmastime sweet from the Naples area. Struffoli are made from little balls of sweet dough that are deep-fried, dipped in honey and decorated with colored confetti and candied fruit. You’ll find it as cicirata in Calabria, or cicerchiata in Umbria, Abruzzo, and Le Marche.
- One of the most popular recipes served for the Christmas holidays in southern Italy is baccalà. Mainly enjoyed at Christmas Eve dinner, the cod is prepared differently depending on the region.
Who is Babbo Natale?
Like many other holiday figures, Christian tradition blends with far older pagan celebrations. Italian children await him sometime during the night between December 24th and 25th, when he flies in from the North Pole with his elves and his reindeer. Babbo Natale is the Italian equivalent of Santa Claus in English-speaking countries. All these similar figures derive mainly from the same historical figure: St Nicholas, bishop of Myra (today Demre, a city in modern-day Turkey). It’s said St. Nicholas found and brought back to life three children who had been kidnapped and killed by an innkeeper, and from then on he was considered the Protector of Children. In parts of Italy (but also in the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, Switzerland, Germany, the Czech Republic and Slovenia) he is still depicted as wearing bishop’s robes.
The relics of St. Nicholas were partly transported to Bari, a town in the south of Italy, according to a fisherman’s legend, but in reality, they were smuggled out of Myra in 1087 by merchants, and a basilica was built to house them, with the foundations being laid on a pre-existing structure, in the same year. The site, the basilica of St Nicholas of Bari, has been a place of pilgrimage for the faithful ever since. Part of the holy relics, which remained in Myra, were later found by the Venetians and moved to the church and abbey of St Nicholas in Venice’s Lido. The left humerus is still almost intact in Rimini and other bones are scattered around Europe!
The visits to Santa’s grotto are just as popular in Italy as in other countries. You will often find him at a centro commerciale (shopping mall) or sitting on his sleigh in a village piazza. You’ll even see him in unique settings in the Italian landscape where he fits in perfectly. Some examples include:
- Ornavasso (Piedmont), Babbo Natale ditches his reindeer and takes a trip boat trip on Lake Maggiore before climbing up to his grotto
- The Magico Paese di Natale (Magical Christmas Village) in Govone (also in Piedmont) nominated as one of Europe’s best Christmas markets
- The beautiful Valle d’Aosta between Italy and France at Chateau Noel in the grounds of Castello Gamba (Gamba Castle)
Good To Know: Although Babbo Natale is important in Italy, there are some regions, that have different traditions. In northern Italy and some parts of the south, children look forward to December 6th, which is St. Nicholas Day (La Festa di San Nicola). Presents are received on the night the saint is celebrated. Similarly, in Bergamo, Verona, and Friuli, children celebrate December 13th in honor of Santa Lucia (St. Lucy). Children usually write a letter addressed to the saint in which they say they’ve been good and deserve a present. To thank her, they leave a small bowl of flour for St. Lucy’s donkey and a cup of coffee with bread and biscuits for the saint herself.
La Befana and Epiphany
La Befana, the good Christmas witch, visits children on the night between January 5th and 6th delivering presents to good children and coal to the children who have been naughty. Towns and cities host festivals as a celebration, people dress up as La Befana, and bunting of the witch is placed around the cities.
January 6, the Epiphany, is the end of the Christmas period; it is a celebration of the three wise men arriving in Bethlehem with gifts to see Baby Jesus in his manger. The feast of the Epiphany is the last time family comes together in the festive season before children return to school and adults resume their working week.
How to say Merry Christmas in Italian
Buon Natale: Buon Natale is the most common Italian phrase used to wish someone a Merry Christmas. The Italian term natale comes from the Latin natalem (birth), as part of the sentence natālem Christi (day of birth of Christ).
Five tips for planning Christmas in Italy
- Be aware that most museums, monuments, and shops close on Christmas Day, December 25th. Many also close on Christmas Eve, December 24th. Some restaurants are open, but meals on these days require some advance planning.
- Christmas in Italy is magical but can be cold. Plan for chilly and humid weather in general. In the north, plan for snow and fog. In the south, plan for rain.
- Be aware that sunset in Italy in December is before 5 pm.
- In many places in Italy, December is low season, so travelers can get great rates. However, the week between Christmas and New Year’s is often considered to be high season.
- Winter in Italy is a special time of year, specialty foods are everywhere, operas and symphonies are running their programs, and there are fewer crowds. It’s a great opportunity for the traveler to participate in local traditions with Italians during a very important holiday.
Planning a trip to Italy for Christmas?
If you are thinking of visiting Italy at Christmas, schedule a call with Audrey for a magical visit in Italy.