Christmas Celebrations & Traditions in Italy

Quando si parla di tradizioni Natalizie, celebrazioni, e sopratutto, la famiglia, non esiste un'altro paese come l'Italia. E'il paese ideale per celebrare il Natale per via dei suoi colori, le sue tradizioni ed il modo di celebrare molto accattivante. Il Natale in Italia non vuol dire celebrare solo un giorno ma una celebrazione stagionale. E' una festa che dura tre settimane, a partire da una settimana prima di Natale fino alla Epifania il 6 Gennaio. Anni fa tradizionalmente la Befana portava i regali ai bimbi. Ma oggi cè anche il Babbo Natale. Si inizia mettendo le decorazioni il giorno otto Dicembre, la festa della Immacolata. Gli alberi di Natale con tante luci e sempre piu alti ed il tradizionale Presepe. La notte di natale è anche un grande evento di gastronomia. Si mangia tanto pesce. Ogni paese e citta ha le sue tradizioni: i Zampognari di Napoli; l'altissimo albero di Natale di Gubbio; in Abbadia di San Salvatore vicino Montalcino le fiaccole e a Roma le migliaia di persone davanti il Vaticano per la benedizione del Papa.

When it comes to Christmas traditions, celebrations and, most importantly, la famiglia, there is no other place in the world quite like Italy. It is a great place to be at Christmas time, as the colorful ways and traditions in which the festival is celebrated captivates many. Over the years I have been fortunate and blessed to have experienced and witnessed the celebrations and events that occur throughout Italy during this very special time of the year.

Christmas in Italy means a season of celebrations and not just celebrating one particular day. If you are weary of how commercialized Christmas has become in the United States, Italy would be a lovely change of pace. Shying away from the commercial, which seems to overwhelm us here in the USA, Christmas in Italy is really about the joy of family. Children in Italy do not write letters to Santa. Rather, they write letters to their parents, telling them how much they love and appreciate them. The letters are placed under the father's plate for the Christmas Eve dinner and ceremoniously read after the meal. Christmas season in Italy is traditionally celebrated from Christmas Eve through the Epiphany (January 6).This follows the pagan season of celebrations that started with Saturnalia, a winter solstice festival, and ended with the Roman New Year.

The Italian Christmas season generally lasts three weeks beginning with the Novena, the eight days before Christmas. This is a period of celebration when music fills the air. Young musicians go around playing their musical instruments, singing Christmas carols and reciting Christmas poems. Preparations for the Christmas holiday are begun in earnest by families during the Novena.

Italian Christmas Traditions

Although Babo Natale (Father Christmas) and giving presents on Christmas are becoming more common, the main day for gift giving is the Epiphany, the twelfth day of Christmas when the three wise men gave Baby Jesus their gifts. In Italy, presents are brought by La Befana, who arrives in the night to fill children's stockings with candy and trinkets. Supposedly, La Befana was a witch at whose house the three wise men stopped and asked for directions. They asked her to join them and she declined. Later, a shepherd also stopped and asked her to go with him to see the Christ child. Again, the old witch said no. After the shepherd left, La Befana saw the great light in the heavens and thought she should have gone to see the child. So she gathered up some toys that had belonged to her own child who had passed away and hurried to find the three kings. She could never find them or the stable. Now, as the myth goes, she wanders around each Christmas giving toys to children, hoping to find the Christ child when she undertakes her journey to Bethlehem.

Christmas decorations and trees are becoming more popular in Italy. Lights and decorations are often seen starting on December 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, or even the end of November. The main focus of the decorations continues to be the PRESEPE (Nativity scene or crèche). Almost every church has a PRESEPE and they are also often found outdoors in a piazza or public area. Another Italian tradition is to set up a tiered table called "The Tree of Lights," which is decorated with colored paper, pinecones, small pendants and candles. The bottom tier typically holds a nativity and the second tier hold fruits and candles. The rest of the layers are reserved for gifts.

Traditionally, a meatless dinner is eaten on Christmas Eve with the family, which includes seven types of fish (for the sacraments) and, depending on the town of origin, as many as thirteen. Baccala (salted dried cod fish), capitone (eel), calamari (squid), scungili (conch meat) and vongole (clams) are typically included in the meal, as are sweets with nuts and almonds. Sweets may include biscotti, panforte, pandoro and almost always includes panettone. This is all followed by a living nativity scene and a midnight mass. Dinner on Christmas day is usually meat-based.

Although you will find Christmas celebrations all over Italy, the following are some of the most unusual or most popular events held throughout Italy.

Napoli is one of the best cities to visit for Nativity cribs. In Naples there is the Via San Gregorio Armeno, a market where you can purchase any display you may need for your nativity scene. You can buy everything from traditional pieces such as angels and stars to moss-covered houses and wells filled with water. Naples and southern Italy have other Christmas traditions. One of the more unusual sounds of Christmas in Italy is the sound of bagpipes. The Zampognari (shepherds who play the bagpipes) come from their homes to perform in the market squares of Calabria, Naples, Abruzzo and Rome. The Zampognari wear traditional outfits of sheepskin vests, leather breeches and dark woolen cloaks and stop before every shrine to the Madonna and every Nativity scene to play their music. Many travel from the mountains of the Abruzzo Region to play outside churches and in popular city squares.

GUBBIO: Near the top of MONTE INGINO, above Gubbio, Umbria, a huge Christmas tree measuring 800 meters tall is made up of 450 lights. In 1991 the Guiness Book of Records named it "The World's Tallest Christmas Tree." The tree, topped by a star that can be seen for nearly 50 kilometers, is lit up every year on December 7, the evening before the feast of the Immaculate Conception.

ROME: SAINT PETER'S SQUARE in the Vatican City holds a popular midnight mass attended by thousands of people from all over the world. In Rome, cannons are fired from the CASTEL SANT ANGELO on Christmas Eve. At noon on Christmas Day the Pope appears on his balcony to bless the crowd gathered in the Piazza San Pietro.

MONTALCINO: In ABBADIA di SAN SALVATORE, near Montalcino, the Fiaccole di Natale, or Festival of Christmas Torches (Christmas Eve), is celebrated with carols and torchlight processions in memory of the shepherds from the first Christmas Eve. As Italians the greatest gift that we cherish most is the importance of LA FAMIGLIA. The holiday season is a special time of the year to get together and share it with those you love and hold dear. For this we can all be very proud of our heritage and culture like no other in the world.


Peter D'Attoma is president of DaVinci Custom Travel & Tours. He has over 30 years of planning and designing independent, custom and escorted tours of Italy for individuals, groups and incentives. For more information call 330-633-2292 or visit