How Italians celebrate Christmas: a season of tradition and festive delights

By Go! Go! Italia staff
14 Dec 2023
Reading Time: 4 minutes
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Joy, warmth, celebration, and endless feasts are commonly associated with Christmas worldwide. This is even more particularly accurate when considering how Italians celebrate Christmas, rooted in centuries-old traditions that foster unity among families and communities. The holiday season in Italy is characterized by a distinctive combination of religious rituals, festive decorations, and, naturally, the delightful cuisine for which Italians are renowned.

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Religious significance

For many Italians, Christmas is not just a time for exchanging gifts and indulging in delicious meals but also a deeply religious occasion. The season kicks off on December 8th with the Immacolata (Feast of the Immaculate Conception), a national holiday that symbolizes the Virgin Mary’s conception of Jesus. From this day onward, cities and towns across Italy come alive with vibrant nativity scenes, elaborate decorations, and twinkling lights, creating a festive atmosphere that continues until the Epifania (Epiphany) on January 6th.

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La Vigilia di Natale (Christmas Eve)

How Italians celebrate Christmas involves a significant tradition on Christmas Eve: fish. The feast typically includes a variety of fish and seafood, such as baccalà (salted cod), calamari, shrimp, and clams. This tradition has its roots in the Catholic practice of abstaining from meat on Christmas Eve, and it has become a cherished ritual for families to gather around the table, enjoying the abundance of seafood delights.

This special meal is about more than just food; it’s a time for families to gather, share stories, and reminisce about past Christmases. After dinner, many families attend Midnight Mass, known as Messa di mezzanotte, a solemn occasion that marks the birth of Jesus Christ.

Christmas day feast

Christmas day itself is marked by a sumptuous feast that varies from region to region but is always characterized by a spirit of abundance and togetherness. In northern Italy, families may indulge in stuffed pasta dishes like tortellini or cappelletti, while in the south, roasted meats such as lamb or porchetta (pork roast) take center stage. Panettone and Pandoro, sweet type of breads, are a quintessential part of how Italians like to celebrate Christmas, often accompanied by a glass of spumante (sparkling wine) or sweet wine.

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Panettone and Pandoro: sweet treats of the season

No Italian Christmas celebration would be complete without enjoying the traditional sweet treats: panettone and pandoro. Panettone, a tall, dome-shaped cake studded with raisins and candied fruits, is a symbol of prosperity and abundance. Pandoro, on the other hand, is a star-shaped cake with a light and airy texture. Both are delicious accompaniments to coffee or tea and a popular gift choice during the holidays.

Fun fact: Not everyone in Italy likes both panettone AND pandoro. Instead, you might come across passionate factions that exclusively adore one or the other.

At Go! Go! Italia we are team pandoro! 😉

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Il presepe: a craft of devotion

Christmas decorations in Italy are typically more traditional than in other countries, with a focus on natural materials like wood, straw, and greenery.

One of the most beloved Italian Christmas traditions is the creation of the nativity scene, known in Italy as presepe. These elaborate displays, found in homes, churches, and public squares, depict the scene of baby Jesus’s birth, often incorporating local landscapes and materials. The figures, ranging from the Holy Family to shepherds and animals, are meticulously crafted and painted, adding to the charm and uniqueness of each scene. A cherished family activity in how Italians celebrate Christmas is the building of a presepe, a tradition passed down from generation to generation.

Festive markets

Christmas markets, known as mercatini di Natale, add another layer of enchantment to the season. These open-air markets, filled with stalls selling handcrafted ornaments, decorations, and local delicacies, offer a delightful way to soak up the festive atmosphere.

A time for family and community

Christmas in Italy is a time for family and friends to come together, celebrate their shared heritage, and create lasting memories. The traditions, the food, and the spirit of togetherness make this a truly special season for all who experience it.

Christmas carols, known as canti di Natale, are an integral part of the season, with families and choirs singing traditional songs during celebrations.

Gift-giving traditions

While the concept of gift-giving is central to Christmas celebrations worldwide, Italians have their own unique traditions. Besides Babbo Natale (Santa Claus), Italians have another gift-bringer: la Befana, a kind and elderly witch-like character. According to folklore, la Befana visits children on the night between January 5th and 6th, filling stockings with sweets for good children and coal for those who have misbehaved.

In Italy, Christmas is more than just a day; it’s a season of joy, family, hospitality and traditions that intertwine the religious and the secular, the ancient and the modern. If you’re looking for a unique and festive experience, consider spending your Christmas in this beautiful country and be ready to eat a lot! You’ll be surrounded by beauty, joy, and the true spirit of the Italian Christmas season.

Buon Natale (Merry Christmas)!

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