Holidays are usually steeped in tradition and Italian holidays are no exception. Christmas in Italy is a charming experience, especially for travelers who experience it the first time around. If you’re in Rome, southern Italy or Sicily, imagine nibbling on Italian fruitcake while listening to bagpipers playing Christmas melodies. For those curious to know what it’s like to celebrate the Italian way, here are some traditions to look forward to.
The festive season typically begins around December 16 and lasts until January 6. For some families, it starts as early as December 8, which is the day of the Immaculate Conception. The reason why it ends on the 6th of January is because it’s the date associated with the arrival of The Three Wise Men in Bethlehem or The Epiphany.
Along with the usual trees and lights decorating homes and public spaces, the presepi (nativity scene) are also on display in churches, piazzas, and in some homes. These ornate handcrafted masterpieces are made in all parts of the country and is a testament to the rich, Italian tradition of handicraft-making.
Christmas Eve and Christmas Day
A lot of Italians avoid meat on la Vigilia (Christmas Eve) and typically indulge in multiple fish-based dishes. After a light Christmas Eve dinner, a more sumptuous Christmas lunch is something that most Italians look forward to. For some families, Christmas Lunch goes on for pretty much the whole day. In the US, it’s typical for kids to write letters to Santa. This is something that also happens in Italy but the more common tradition is kids writing letters for their parents before Christmas. They spend time writing and decorating their letters, which their parents then read aloud after Christmas Lunch.
A lot families open gifts on Christmas Eve but some kids open their presents later -- on the 6th of January to be exact. The Epiphany is when the good ugly witch known as La Befana drops off presents. The story is that she followed the wise old men but she got lost along the way.
What’s a celebration without cake? On Christmas Eve, the cenone (big dinner) varies from region to region but there is usually one staple: the panettone, which is a delightful fruitcake sometimes with frosting or dusted with powdered sugar. Others prefer a nougat, Il Torrone, or il pandoro which is similar to il panettone, but without the candied fruit. Buone Feste!