Christmas is a special time of year across the world; a time for family, love, happiness, and lots of food! And nowhere is this more appreciated than in Italy, where Natale is the main celebration of the year.
For the Christmas period in Italy, people return to their home from all over the world, get together with family around a heavily-laden table of traditional food, and participate in lots of festive traditions. Sound familiar?
So how does Christmas in Italy differ from our own Christmas festivities? Here, we’ve found some of the most popular traditions in the country, although there are lots of regional variations too!
When is it?
Christmas in Italy officially starts on the 8th of December with the Day of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. This feast day is both a religious and a secular holiday, meaning lots of businesses are shut on the day, with decorations beginning to go up throughout the country.
The festivities then continue through to Epiphany on the 6th January, when decorations and Christmas markets begin to come down.
Food is a large part of Christmas in Italy, with lots of traditional meals throughout the period. Christmas Eve dinner, Christmas Day lunch, Santo Stefano’s feast, and the Epiphany feast all hold great importance.
We spoke to Bella Cosa, a leading Italian restaurant based in London, to find out more about the kind of food enjoyed in Italy over the festive period.
“Like all Italian traditions, each region has it’s own variation of traditional dishes. However, most meals will feature some seafood, pasta, meat, and desserts. Salted cod, swordfish, and tortellini are popular on Christmas Eve, which is a traditionally meatless meal to purify your body for the upcoming holidays, whilst capon and turkey are usually the main event on Christmas day.
And, to top it all off, delicious Italian desserts such as torrone, panettone, and pandoro are enjoyed across the country!”
The day of gift-giving varies throughout the regions and throughout different families, although Christmas Day gift-giving is becoming more common, with presents delivered by Father Christmas (Babbo Natale).
However, Epiphany is still a popular day for giving gifts, which are believed to come from la befana, a good witch who got lost when trying to find baby Jesus. If children have been good, la befana fills their stockings with brightly coloured sweets. If they have been bad, she gives them coal (which are just sweets dyed black).
In some smaller, northern cities, it’s believed that the blind St Lucia brings gifts on the 13th of December, so children open presents that morning.
The eight days before Christmas, also known as the Novena, are celebrated across Italy.
Children and adults alike spend the days singing traditional carols and songs, with more rural areas seeing children dressed up as shepherds and going from house to house.
Similarly, Southern Italy celebrates these days with bagpipers who travel from the nearby mountains to play folklore carols.
The ceppo is another tradition in most Italian households, which can take the form of either a yule-log or the Tree of Life.
Those families who view it as a yule-log will burn a log on the fireplace, which has to stay alight from Christmas Eve through to the end of Christmas Day.
For those who view it as the Tree of Life, it’s essentially a wooden frame in a pyramid shape. The lowest tier will have the nativity scene, a very important symbol of Christmas in Italy, and the other tiers will be reserved for gifts and decorations.
Bringing in Christmas Day
Heralding in Christmas Day is another important tradition after the Christmas Eve feast.
Many Italians do this by heading to their local church for midnight Mass. However, in Cortina d’Ampezzo, in the Dolomite mountains, they do a midnight ski down the slopes with torches to welcome in the holiday!
Whilst many children write to Father Christmas, many families still follow the older tradition of writing letters to their parents, telling them how much they love them. These letters are beautifully decorated and tied up and are read aloud after Christmas lunch.
After all, Christmas is about family, right?