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Italy is one of the continent’s most beautiful and picturesque countries that hosts some of the world’s most incredible Christmas celebrations each year. Christmas is a hugely important celebration in Italy, partly due to the nation’s strong Catholic heritage but also because it’s a time when extended families get together and enjoy each other’s company.
Most people think of Italy as a summer vacation destination and although it is fantastic during the warm summer months it’s equally special over the Christmas period.
There are many unique traditions that make Italy the best place to be during the Christmas celebrations; and so whether you’re an Expat or a tourist, you’re bound to notice these unusual customs during your travels.
Italian Christmas Traditions.
The following are some of the key Christmas traditions of Italy:
Extended Celebrations Are A Hallmark Of Italian Christmas Celebrations.
One of the features of Italian Christmas that is universal across the nation is the tradition of celebrating for far longer than most other countries. In Italy, the Christmas season begins on the Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception on the 8th December and continues until the celebration of Epiphany, on the 6th January.
That means that the official festive celebrations in Italy last for a full month; which is great news if you love to explore the atmospheric Christmas markets and fairs which pop up in the piazzas of cities and towns across the nation.
Italians Don’t Eat Meat On Christmas Eve.
The rather unusual tradition of not eating meat on Christmas Eve, or ‘La Vigilia’ in Italian, is almost entirely unknown in other parts of the world. However, if you’re wondering why Italians would ever forgo a good meal then don’t worry because they still eat fish and other food types!
The customary reason why Italians don’t eat meat on Christmas Eve is because you are supposed to eat a lean diet before any Holy day. This allows you to purify and cleanse your body before a major religious celebration, a tradition that has its roots in Roman Catholicism.
However, despite avoiding meat, a traditional Christmas Eve meal often includes seven courses of fish, shellfish and other seafood to replace the usual meat dishes. On top of this, vegetables, bread and fruit are often served to compliment the multiple courses of fish! So, as you can see, the Italians may not be eating meat on La Vigilia but they certainly still do enjoy their food!
A popular dish that is eaten on Christmas Eve, particularly in Rome, is called Pezzetti and includes artichokes, zucchini, cauliflower, broccoli and potatoes; which are quickly fried together and served with bread and olive oil.
In Naples, one of the region’s traditional Christmas Eve dishes is made by sautéing fresh seafood and broccoli together. In other parts of Italy, such as Lombardy, the traditional dish for Christmas Eve is a lasagna that is filled with anchovies instead of meat. Clams and other shellfish are also commonly eaten on La Vigilia.
Being a very Catholic country with many devout believers it’s traditional for Italians to attend Midnight Mass. If you’re in Rome the custom is to go to the Vatican for Mass but all Cathedrals and churches across the nation host their own ceremonies.
Midnight Mass is a joyful celebration of the Nativity, or birth, of Jesus and is thought to have first originated in Jerusalem in the 4th Century AD. The Pope oversees the Midnight Mass ceremony in the Vatican but if you plan to visit it’s worth remembering that it actually starts at 9.30pm and is absolutely free for visitors to attend.
The celebrations take place in St Peter’s Square where a huge Christmas tree and a life size nativity scene are set up; and the ceremony is even televised so you can still watch even if you can’t make it in person.
If you’re an Expat or a tourist in Rome then it’s definitely worth attending the Midnight Mass and even if you don’t identify as a Catholic you’re still more welcome to attend to witness the remarkable spectacle!
Bagpipes At Christmas!
It may come as a major surprise to people who’ve never spent Christmas in Italy but it’s not unusual to see men in the town piazzas playing bagpipes while dressed up as shepherds!
This somewhat bizarre Italian custom originates from past centuries when shepherds would come down from their mountain pastures to play bagpipes in the town squares to earn some extra money from passers by who would stop and listen to their music.
These shepherds were called ‘Zampognari’ and represent the shepherds who visited Jesus after he was born in the manger. This is actually an ancient tradition that dates right back to Roman times and although its meaning has changed somewhat it’s still great fun and enjoyable to see.
The bagpipe players wear brightly colored breeches, sheepskin jackets and a wooly cloak. You can find these Zampognari in many hill towns and all major cities; so if you’re in Italy during the Christmas season you should definitely be keeping your eye out for these unique cultural artifacts of Italian society.
Go Skiing In The Alps.
During December the Alpine ski slopes of Northern Italy are at their very best. Celebrating the Christmas season by going on a family or group skiing holiday is a popular tradition for Italians in the country.
Of course, the Alpine villages put up lovely displays of lights in the streets, host markets and fairs and often municipalities put up a Christmas tree and a nativity scene in the main square.
To top it all off, one of the most amazing Christmas traditions in Northern Italy involves large groups of people skiing down the slopes at midnight carrying burning torches!
All in all, spending your Christmas at an Italian ski resort really feels like you’ve stepped into a winter wonderland with plenty of snow, jollity and spectacular mountain scenery.
La Befana – Good Witches.
In most of the world the traditional bringer of gifts at Christmas is Santa Claus however in Italy, not to outdone, there is also a custom that a good witch, or ‘La Befana’, brings presents for children who had been good during the year.
Tradition dictates that the good witch would bring a lump of coal for children who had been bad in the year and sweets and fruit for children who had been good. The gifts are left in stockings on the 6th January, when the festive season officially ends.
The good witch would not only leave presents for the children but she would also sweep the floor with her broom which is said to brush away negativity and problems from the household.
According to legends, La Befana would have visited Jesus after he was born with the Three Kings from the East; however, because she had housework to do she stayed at home instead! She did though, eventually, make the trip to visit the new born baby Jesus with a bag of gifts for the son of God.
One of the ubiquitous traditions in Italy during the Christmas period is to proudly display a ‘Ceppo’ in the household. A Ceppo is a wooden framed pyramid with several layers of shelves. Most Ceppo are several feet high although you can sometimes find larger ones too.
The custom in Italy is to put a nativity scene on the bottom shelf of the Ceppo and then sweets, gifts, fruit and other treats on the shelves above. At the top of the pyramid frame you’ll see people putting a star or, sometimes, a fairy or a doll in pride of place.
Each Ceppo is different and it’s a fun part of the Christmas preparations which families all over the country partake in decorating together.
Sweets And Treats Galore.
During the Christmas season Italians tend to eat a lot of sweet food and treats. The traditional sweets vary immensely across the country, with different provinces and regions having their own unique take on this custom but wherever you go you’ll find a delicious array of all types of treats.
For instance, in Siena in Tuscany, cookies that are beautifully decorated with a picture of a house, called ‘Cavallucci’ are sold in market stalls. Whereas in Rome you’ll see plenty of nut pastries called ‘Mostaccioli’ on offer throughout the city.
Something which you’ll find throughout all of Italy is known as ‘Panettone’ and is a tasty sweet bread. Nonetheless, wherever you go in Italy during the festive season you’ll be spoilt for choice in the treats department.
Christmas Bonuses For All!
One very unusual tradition in Italy is known as the ‘thirteenth’ and is a bonus given to workers right across the country for Christmas. This bonus equals one full month of a worker’s wages which means that they end up getting paid for 13 months of work each year instead of 12!
This is hugely popular and allows people to go shopping and splash out over the festive season without breaking the bank. This tradition was first introduced by Mussolini’s regime to reward factory workers although it was eventually extended to benefit all employees.
Nativity Scenes Are A Big Deal.
All over Italy you’ll see nativity scenes popping up at the beginning of the festive season. Known as ‘presepi’ in Italian, every church, most family households, town squares and public spaces put up their own nativity scene. The grandest of these is, of course, to be found at the Vatican but not all nativity scenes are religious in nature.
For instance, in recent years it’s become popular to create nativity scenes with modern characters which might include famous football players, celebrities, politicians or figures such as a pizza maker and other pillars of society!
Each year, in Rome, there’s also a fantastic exhibition of 100 presepi from all over the world which is housed beneath the Colonnade of St Peter’s Square. So, if you’re in Rome during the festive season this is a great day trip for friends and family to see some of the finest presepi you’ll ever see.
Italy At Christmas – Unique Traditions Make It That Much More Special.
Christmas time in Italy is the perfect combination of religious ceremony, fun customs, quality family time and fantastic food. The many uniquely Italian traditions transform the season into a magical time for everyone involved so if you’re wondering what to do this Christmas then you might want to consider booking your tickets to Italy for the festive period this year.