A Christmas tree outside the Colosseum in Rome.
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Christmas in Italy: food, culture and traditions

Visiting Rome around Christmas? Book a Christmas walking tour to learn about local traditions and see the city decorated for the festive season.

Italy, a land of art, history, and delectable cuisine, undergoes a magical transformation during Christmas. As "Natale" approaches, the country is engulfed by regional traditions, each offering a unique festive experience.

Christmas in Italy is deeply rooted in religious traditions. While a majority of Italians identify as Roman Catholics, the festive season transcends regular religious practices, evoking spiritual reflections even among the less devout.

The Christmas season in Italy spans from the Immaculate Conception on December 8th to the Epiphany on January 6th. During this period, businesses and schools often close, allowing Italians to immerse themselves in festive preparations and celebrations.

While some venture to winter resorts for a snowy getaway, most Italians cherish the warmth of home, reuniting with family and reliving age-old traditions.

The lights of a Christmas market in Bolzano, Italy.

The lead-up to Christmas in Italy

The lead-up to Christmas in Italy is filled with anticipation and various pre-Christmas traditions. Towns and cities are adorned with lights, and ornaments, and Christmas markets open. Setting up the "Presepe" or nativity scene is another cherished tradition. Some are intricate, depicting entire villages, while others are simple, focusing on the Holy Family.

Advent calendars and candles are common in households, counting down the days to Christmas. The sound of carolers can be heard echoing through the streets, and special church services, including the Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, draw large congregations.

Apart from the markets, many towns and cities host other events, from Christmas concerts to nativity re-enactments. Attending these events is a way for Italians to immerse themselves in the festive spirit.

Christmas markets in Italy

 As December begins, towns and cities, especially in the northern regions, sparkle with Christmas markets or "Mercatini di Natale." More than just shopping hubs, these markets are sensory delights.

The aroma of roasted chestnuts and mulled wine fills the air, while artisans display their masterpieces, from delicate glass ornaments to handcrafted wooden toys. Apart from shopping for gifts and decorations, visitors can enjoy traditional foods, listen to live music, and even participate in workshops.

Cities like Bressanone, Bolzano, and Trento are particularly renowned for their festive markets, where the backdrop of snow-clad mountains amplifies the charm.

A nativity scene outside San Pietro Basilica, Rome.

Iconic Italian Christmas traditions

Presepe

The nativity scene, or "Presepe," holds a special place in Italian homes. Ranging from elaborate displays depicting entire villages to simple representations of the Holy Family, these scenes are a testament to Italy's artistic heritage.

Midnight Mass

The spiritual heart of Christmas in Italy is the Midnight Mass. Churches across the country, from grand cathedrals to quaint village chapels, are filled with the faithful celebrating the birth of Christ. The most renowned of these is the Mass at St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City, where the Pope leads the service. The ambiance, with choir hymns echoing and candles flickering, is truly ethereal.

La Befana

Move over, Santa Claus; Italy has La Befana! This endearing character from Italian folklore is a benevolent witch who flies on her broomstick on the eve of January 6th, the Epiphany. Legend has it that she was approached by the Three Wise Men seeking directions to Bethlehem. Though she couldn't guide them, she offered them shelter for the night.

In gratitude, they invited her to join them in their quest, but she declined. Later, regretting her decision, she set out to find the baby Jesus, bearing gifts. While she never found him, she continues her quest to this day, leaving presents for good children and coal (or dark candy) for the naughty ones.

Music and caroling

Italian streets come alive with the sound of music during Christmas. Traditional carols, known as 'canti natalizi', are sung with fervour.

One of the most beloved carols is "Tu scendi dalle stelle" (You come down from the stars), written by Saint Alphonsus Liguori in the 18th century. Its poignant lyrics and melody capture the essence of the Italian Christmas spirit.

You'll also find Christmas concerts and operas in major towns and cities around the country.

The Feast of the Seven Fishes is a Christmas Eve tradition in Southern Italy.

Christmas food in Italy 

Feast of the Seven Fishes

A tradition rooted in Southern Italy, this seafood extravaganza on Christmas Eve is a testament to Italy's coastal heritage. The table is laden with seven different seafood dishes, symbolizing the seven sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church. Favourites include baccalà (salted cod), which is often fried or baked, calamari stuffed with breadcrumbs and herbs, and spaghetti alle vongole, a simple yet flavourful dish with clams, garlic, and a splash of white wine.

Depending on the region, the feast can also feature meatless dishes like gnocchi and stuffed pasta. In Northern Italy, particularly in Veneto, buckwheat spaghetti drenched in a creamy anchovy sauce is a favourite. And of course, desserts are an essential part of the evening, with treats like biscotti, pandoro, torrone, and the iconic candied loaf of panettone gracing the table.

Christmas Day Lunch

Christmas Day lunch is the pièce de résistance of the Natale meals, often extending for several hours. This meal is a stark contrast to the previous night's seafood spread, with a focus on meat dishes. The feast begins with an antipasto spread, boasting dry cured meats, salumi, exquisite Italian cheeses, olives, and artichokes.

The pasta course varies by region: baked pasta is a staple in Southern and Central Italy, while in the North, dishes like Lasagne Bolognese, manicotti, and ravioli take centre stage. The main course features meaty delights such as roasted veal, turkey, baked chicken, and braised beef.

Santo Stefano's Lunch

The festivities continue on December 26th, known as Santo Stefano. This meal is an opportunity to invite extended family and friends. If the guest list remains unchanged, it's customary to relish the leftovers.

While there aren't strict culinary traditions for this day, the meal is typically less elaborate but equally inventive. It's the perfect time to experiment with unique pasta dishes or exotic soups. Many also opt to dine out, taking a well-deserved break from the kitchen.

Panettone with Christmas decorations

Traditional Christmas dishes

Torrone

This isn't just any nougat. Torrone is a centuries-old treat, with records of it being served at Italian weddings and Christmases for hundreds of years. Made with honey, whipped egg whites, and toasted nuts, often almonds or hazelnuts, this sweet, sticky confection is a Christmas staple in many Italian households.

Cotechino and Lentils

As the clock strikes midnight on New Year's Eve, many Italians indulge in cotechino, a spiced pork sausage, served with stewed lentils. The dish isn't just delicious but also symbolic. The lentils, with their coin-like shape, are believed to bring prosperity and good fortune in the coming year, while the rich, fatty cotechino represents abundance.

Panettone

Originating from Milan, Panettone is a tall, dome-shaped sweet bread that has become synonymous with Christmas in many parts of Italy and beyond. Its history is steeped in legends, with tales of noble Milanese lovers and dedicated bakers crafting this bread as a symbol of their affection.

Panettone has a soft, airy texture and is studded with candied fruits and raisins. The process of making this bread is labor-intensive, often taking several days to allow for the natural fermentation of the dough. This results in its characteristic fluffy consistency. While Panettone is popular throughout Italy, it holds a special place in the hearts of those in the northern regions, especially Lombardy, where Milan is located.

Pandoro

Pandoro, which translates to "golden bread," hails from the romantic city of Verona. Unlike the fruit-laden Panettone, Pandoro is a pure, buttery delight, often recognized by its bright yellow hue and star-like shape. It's traditionally made without any fillings or candied fruits, resulting in a simpler, yet rich flavor profile.

The bread is often dusted with a generous layer of powdered sugar, mimicking the snowy peaks of winter, and adding a touch of sweetness. While Pandoro is enjoyed by many Italians during the festive season, it's especially cherished in the northeastern regions of the country, including Veneto, where Verona is situated.

Panettone vs. Pandoro: Italy's Christmas Bread Rivalry

 The debate between Panettone and Pandoro is a friendly rivalry that emerges every Christmas season in Italy. While both breads are beloved, many Italians have a strong preference for one over the other.

In the northern regions, the fruit-filled Panettone often reigns supreme, while in the northeast, the golden simplicity of Pandoro is celebrated. However, regardless of regional affiliations, the choice often boils down to personal taste. Some adore the candied delights of Panettone, while others prefer the unadulterated richness of Pandoro.

Christmas lights in the Naviglio district in Milan.

Enchanting places to spend Christmas in Italy

Milan

Milan, Italy's fashion capital, is not to be left behind in the Christmas celebrations. The city hosts fairs and markets, with the most notable being 'Oh bej, oh bej!', a tradition dating back to the 14th century. The markets commence on December 7th, coinciding with the festival of San Ambrogio.

The Galleria Vittoria Emanuele II, apart from housing designer boutiques, becomes a focal point with its grand Christmas tree, often sponsored by luxury brands like Swarovski. And for those with a penchant for the arts, December 7th also marks the opening of the La Scala opera and theatre season, making Milan a must-visit during the festive season.

Bressanone

Bressanone is a picturesque town in Northern Italy, near the Austrian border, that comes alive during the festive season. Drawing inspiration from the Christmas markets of Alsace, South Tyrol, where Bressanone is located, is known for some of Italy's most enchanting Christmas markets.

Picture streets adorned with twinkling lights, ornaments hanging from every corner, and the gentle blanket of snow adding to the magic. And while Santa Claus is a universal figure, here he takes on the traditional avatar of an Arch-bishop, reminding us of the deep-rooted traditions of the region.

Napoli's San Gregorio Armeno

Venture south to Napoli, and you'll be greeted by the charming tradition of 'Presepi Greco'. Here, the nativity scene is recreated with intricate statues, handcrafted from simple materials like wood. But these aren't just any nativity scenes.

They depict the daily life of people from around the world, from shepherds preparing pizza in Naples to scenes from distant lands. As Christmas approaches, locals and tourists alike wander the town, taking in the beautifully crafted scenes. Some families even dedicate an entire room to house these cribs, a testament to their significance.

Matera

In Matera, the nativity scene is not just displayed; it's lived. Every year, locals re-enact the nativity, with a chosen girl playing the Virgin Mary and a man embodying Joseph.

The town transforms into Bethlehem, complete with Romans and the three Wise Men, offering a truly immersive experience. Thanks to its uncanny resemblance to ancient Palestinian villages, Matera also served as the backdrop for the filming of "The Passion of Christ".

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Roxanne de Bruyn

Author - Roxanne de Bruyn

Roxanne is the founder and editor of Faraway Worlds. She is a freelance writer and guidebook author and has written for several travel publications, including Lonely Planet and The Culture Trip. With a background in communications, she has studied ancient history, comparative religion and international development, and has a particular interest in sustainable tourism.

Originally from South Africa, Roxanne has travelled widely and loves learning the stories of the places she visits. She enjoys cooking, dance and yoga, and usually travels with her husband and young son. She is based in New Zealand.

Last Updated 9 October 2023

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