Christmas in Italy is celebrated over several weeks as Italians celebrate from early December, depending on the region, until the day of Epiphany, on the 6th of January. Especially the children look forward to the start of the Christmas season in December when Christmas trees are put up and houses are decorated.
In front of St Peters cathedral in Vatican City (see image above), there is a huge Christmas tree put up and many families buy tickets to get entrance to the festive midnight-mass which is held by the Pope.
There is a festive atmosphere during the whole of December. Christmas markets with various stalls with typical food, Christmas sweets and gifts can be visited in many towns especially in Italy's northern Alto-Adige Region. In the image above you see the Christmas market in Bolzano and the image below shows a popular Christmas market in Rome.
On 6th of December, many families celebrate St Nicholas Day. Children write letters to St Nicholas asking for gifts and they hang up either a sock or put a plate on the table on Nicholas day’s eve. Sometimes even a St Nicholas visits the homes of children. Then children sing a Christmas carol or recite a poem.
If the children have been good children throughout the last year, they will get some fruits, nuts and sweets from St Nicholas, the naughty ones get usually also a sweet, but one looking like coal. Find more insights to St Nicholas Day on Staci’s website here.
During the festive season and Christmas in Italy, a nativity scene, a ‘presepe’, is usually put up in churches, town squares and often in houses and is for many the most important parts of Christmas decorations. Especially the people of Southern Italy are fond of their nativity scene displays as the image below (taken in Messina/Sicily) shows.
Did you know that the nativity scene display with a crib filled with straw, originally stems from Italy and is now common in many countries around the world. It is said that the crib scene was first used, when San Francis held his Christmas mass in front of a nativity scene and the people were admiring the beauty of the miracle of Christ’s birth in a manger.
In the Abruzzi region, there is a tradition that bagpipers, so called ‘zampognari’ come into the towns and play their flutes and bagpipes for the people. They symbolize the shepherds who come in search of the new born Jesus baby. Below see two Italians dressed as ‘zampognari’. (Image below by Domenico Vitti, settefrati.net)
On Christmas Eve, as in the old Catholic tradition, often no food is eaten during the day as this is a fast day. The festive celebrations start after midnight mass. Nowadays, ‘Babbo Natale’, the Father Christmas, brings presents to children on Christmas eve.
But as in true Italian style, gifts are exchanged only on January 6 that is the day of Epiphany. Then ‘la befana’, an old lady, comes in search to the houses for search of the Christ Child.
Children hang up their stockings, so that the befana can bring presents to the good children. The naughty ones get lumps of black sugar sweets. The arrival of ‘La befana’ is celebrated with traditional Christmas cake, the panettone, a sweet yeast cake, you can see below.
Now we wish you ‘Buon Natale’, that means Merry Christmas in Italian.
And 'Buona Festa', have a great holiday!
Image Sources for Christmas in Italy: Shutterstock.com