italian christmas traditions
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Unique Italian Christmas Traditions from North to South

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Christmas in Italy is a magical time filled with beloved traditions tied to important dates on the calendar. From the first decorations on December 8 to the arrival of La Befana on January 6, Italians celebrate through symbols, events, activities, and delicious food specialties that vary by region. The diversity and local nuances make experiencing an Italian Christmas unique.

In this article, we will:

  1. Explore the most beautiful and distinctive Christmas traditions from north to south Italy. 
  2. Discover how Italians celebrate Christmas through nativity scenes, trees, bonfires, markets, lights, and food. 
  3. Learn about regional gift-bearers, songs, games, sayings, and more that capture the spirit of Natale. 

The rich customs handed down for generations help make Christmas in Italy a joyous time full of meaning.


Italian christmas traditions

Italian Christmas Traditions: Important Dates

Christmas in the North of Italy starts on the 6th of December with the Festa di San Nicola. For the rest of Italy, everything kicks off on the 8th of December, the Immacolata Concezione. The Feast of the Immaculate Conception is a Catholic celebration, honoring the belief that Mary, the mother of baby Jesus, was conceived without original sin. Christmas trees are made and lit up on this day, including the Christmas Tree in Vatican Square. On the 13th of December, many regions celebrate Santa Lucia, the protector of the eyes. 

The next important Christmas date on the Italian Calendar is La Vigilia di Natale, Christmas Eve, followed by Christmas Day which brings the 12 Days of Christmas. During this period, Italians celebrate Santo Stefano on the 26th, La Vigilia di Capodanno on the 31st. The latter is also called San Silvestro because of the remembrance of the election and death of Pope Silvestro I on this day. 

If you are wondering why Pope Silvestro I holds such an important place in the Italians’ minds and hearts it’s because it helped Christianity and the Church develop into a religion free of persecution. He also is the man behind the establishment of the first Basilicas in Italy.

Then there’s Capodanno, New Year’s Day, and the Night of La Befana on the 5th, followed by the Epifania that ends the Christmas festivities on the 6th with the arrival of the 3 Magi.

If you are curious to learn about the other important dates on the Italian calendar, check out this article about Italian Holidays.


Unique Christmas Traditions in Italy from North to South

The Beloved Tradition of the Presepe (Italian Nativity Scene)

The presepe, or nativity scene, is a typical Italian Christmas tradition born in 1223 when St. Francis of Assisi constructed the first live presepe in Greccio, Italy, with a manger, animals, and people. This launched a custom that spread across Italy, with each region adopting its creative presepe styles. 

In Naples, the elaborate handcrafted figurine presepes were developed into an art form, using terra cotta and wood. In the Marche region, living nativity scenes called presepi vivente are popular. The largest in the world is in Genga, set in the magnificent Frasassi Gorge. 

Other towns erect elaborate presepi in their main plazas featuring flowing fountains, handcrafted figurines, and colorful lights. From simple homemade displays to ornate scenes filling town squares, Italians proudly display these symbols of Christmas in their homes and communities. The presepe captures the meaning and miracle of Christ’s birth that St. Francis originally sought to share centuries ago.

Some of the most unique and renowned presepes to visit in Italy include:

– Il presepe meccanico di Torino – Conveyor belts animate hundreds of figures at this large mechanical presepe. 

– Il presepe di Cavallermaggiore, Piedmont – Visitors can walk inside this intricate presepe with exquisite 1700s wooden statues. 

– Presepe di Manarola, Liguria – Figures are set on a hillside overlooking the sea in this beautiful seaside village of Cinque Terre. 

– I presepi sull’acqua di Comacchio, Emilia Romagna – Presepes set on floating rafts in the canals of this scenic town.

– Presepe di sabbia di Rimini, Emilia Romagna – An intricate nativity scene is crafted out of sand each year on Rimini’s beaches. 

– Il presepe di ghiaccio di Massa Martana, Umbria – Artistic figures carved completely from ice.

– San Gregorio Armeno, Naples – Famous for streets lined with intricate handmade presepe pieces and figurines.

– Presepe vivente di Matera, Basilicata – Residents act out the nativity story in this large living presepe. 

– Presepe di Montalbano Elicona, Sicily – This small Sicilian town, listed among the most beautiful villages in Italy (i borghi piu belli d’Italia), puts on an award-winning live nativity event.

– Presepe vivente di Custonaci, Sicily – This renowned live nativity scene takes place in the natural Grotta Mangiapane cave in Scurati, near Trapani, overlooking the sea.

– Presepe di pane di Olmedo, Sardinia – Miniature bread figures craft an edible nativity scene.


The Ancient Tradition of the Ceppo 

The ceppo, or Yule log, is one of Italy’s oldest Christmas traditions dating back to Ancient Rome. The tradition says that on Christmas Eve, the male head of household must place a large log in the family’s fireplace to burn through the 12 days of Christmas until Epiphany. The ceppo is preferably oak, representing purification, fertility, and renewal. Families gather around the glowing ceppo on Christmas Eve, sometimes singing songs like the “Ave Maria del Ceppo” folk rhymes. In some areas, the ceppo even “delivers” small gifts or sweets to children who have behaved well. 

The ceppo ceremony continues today in towns across Italy like Modigliana, Castrocaro, Cesenatico, and Trivio. In Tuscany’s Valdichiana, the ornate ceppo tradition once even served as a gift-bearer before Christmas trees and Santa. Keeping the ceppo burning remains a beloved Italian Christmas ritual.

Visitors can experience the Ceppo tradition at public lightings including:

L’Albero di Natale. The Christmas Tree Arrives in Italy

The tradition of decorating a Christmas tree originated in Germany but was adopted in Italy during the 20th century, spreading from the north across the country. Italy’s first Christmas tree was erected at Rome’s Quirinal Palace in the late 1800s at Queen Margherita’s request. Though initially opposed by the fascist regime, the tree became a beloved symbol. 

The tradition of the Christmas tree in Italy is still strong today. Every family makes the Christmas tree on the 8th of December, or just before, but waits to light it on the Immaculate Conception day. That symbolizes the official beginning of the Christmas season, and only at the end of the festivities – after the 6th of January – will the Christmas tree be dismantled. The Christmas tree is lit daily in the evenings to build the Christmas spirit and then the entire day on Christmas day.


Italian Christmas tree and Rome events

Major Christmas Tree Lighting events for visitors include:

– Illumination of the tree in Rome’s Piazza Venezia every December 8th for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.

– Lighting the world’s tallest tree in Gubbio, towering 750 meters with over 950 lamps.  

Giant floating tree lit on Lake Trasimeno, the largest Christmas tree in the world designed on water.

Ostuni’s colorful crocheted tree, Italy’s tallest at 11 meters and made of over 4000 wool tiles.

From private family trees to huge public spectacles, the glittering Christmas tree now lights up Italy each holiday season.

Italian Christmas Decorations

Italians decorate elaborately for the holiday season using traditional colors like red, green, gold, and silver which hold symbolic meaning. Greenery like fir, pine, holly, and mistletoe adorn homes, along with poinsettias and roses. Handmade nativity scenes are a prized decoration, with figurines crafted from various materials placed in church alcoves and family homes. Although Christmas trees arrived later historically, they now proudly display glass balls, tinsel, candies, and lights. 

Outdoor decor gets equally festive with strings of lights, illuminated stars or angels, and wreaths. Shop windows compete to create the most lavish displays using Christmas motifs, moving pieces, and lights. Town centers are decorated with trees, light projections on buildings, and seasonal stalls. Many handcraft their ornaments and decorations using paper-mâché, ceramics, woodcarving, glass blowing, or crocheting. The artistry and tradition behind Italian Christmas decorations make them unique.

Zampognari – Italy’s Bagpipe Playing Shepherds

The tradition of Zampognari, or bagpipe playing shepherds, emerged in the 18th century when Saint Alphonsus Liguori adapted the tune of shepherds’ bagpipes in Abruzzo for his beloved Christmas song “Tu Scendi Dalle Stelle” (You Come Down from the Stars). Pairs of Zampognari, one playing the bagpipes and one singing, would spread the song and Christian teachings among the poor.  

The origins trace back to shepherds in ancient Rome who used a wind instrument called the “utriculus” to summon their flocks. This traveled from the Middle East and became part of Italy’s agricultural tradition. Today, Zampognari wander the streets of small towns playing their bagpipes, often for donations.

Notable Christmas events featuring Zampognari performances:

– Christmas Markets in Albosaggia, Sondrio

– Christmas Markets in Cimego, Trento

– Santa’s Village in Monticello d’Alba, Cuneo

– Christmas at the Villa in Cassano Magnago, Varese

– Christmas Market in Canale di Tenno, Trento

– Candele a Candelara Festival in Pesaro and Urbino

– Christmas Town in Sant’Agata Feltria, Rimini

The soulful sounds of the zampogna bagpipes played by traveling shepherds remain a cherished Italian Christmas tradition.

The Tradition of Gift Givers Across Italy

Italians celebrate the Christmas season with several gift bearers, each tied to local traditions in different parts of the country. On December 6th, St. Nicholas Day in Italy, children in northern regions like Trentino-Alto Adige await small gifts and sweets from San Nicoló. In towns across the provinces of Trento, Bolzano, Udine, Verona, and more, children polish their shoes and set them out on windowsills overnight for St. Nicholas to fill with candies and presents. 

Further south, Santa Lucia brings gifts on the night of December 13th. The Sicilian saint delivers presents in secret to children in Syracuse, her native city where the day is celebrated with religious functions and festivities. Other southern and central Italian cities like Naples, Bari, Siena, and Florence commemorate Santa Lucia similarly. In northern provinces like Bergamo, Brescia, Cremona, and Mantova, Santa Lucia’s gift-giving tradition is especially well-known. 

The story is particularly meaningful in Verona, where Santa Lucia saved children from an eye disease epidemic in the 13th century. As thanks, mothers had children walk barefoot on a pilgrimage to Santa Lucia, promising gifts upon their return. Since then, Verona children await Santa Lucia and her donkey bringing gifts on December 13th.

Babbo Natale comes to Italy

Finally, Babbo Natale (Father Christmas) arrives on Christmas Eve to deliver presents throughout Italy. Babbo Natale is said to live in Finland but travels by sleigh to Italian children on the 24th. La Befana, an old but good witch, rounds out the gift-giving on January 5th known as Epiphany Eve. She flies her broomstick across the country filling stockings with sweets for good children, and leaving coal for naughty ones. The diversity of gift bearers adds to the charm and traditions of an Italian Christmas. 

Italian Christmas Markets & Events

Christmas markets bringing festive cheer and seasonal shopping have become popular across Italy. While the tradition originated in Germany and Austria, Italians have embraced the merry markets as part of their holiday celebrations. Cities and towns now host picturesque markets filled with artisanal goods, decorations, food, and music.

The Most Important Christmas Events in Rome

In Rome, the festivities begin on December 8th when the Pope walks to the Piazza di Spagna to lay flowers before the statue of the Virgin Mary in front of the Trinità dei Monti church, followed by crowds of Romans and tourists. On Christmas Eve the classic midnight mass is held in the Vatican, and on the 25th the Pope delivers his pastoral message from the window overlooking St. Peter’s Square.

The Most Unique Christmas Event in Italy 

In the small town of Gorfigliano near Lucca, one of the most unique regional rituals takes place – the building of giant Christmas bonfires called Natalecci. These imposing structures made of branches can reach over 10 meters tall. According to tradition, the Natalecci are burned on Christmas Eve and illuminate the night for the Christ Child.

Notable Christmas Markets and Events

In addition to these special events, Italy has many festive Christmas markets and celebrations worth visiting. Here is a list:

From the Alps to the coast, Italy’s Christmas markets and events offer seasonal magic.

Italian streets with Christmas lights

Italian Christmas Lights

Italians have many beloved lighting traditions to brighten the holiday season. In Trentino-Alto Adige, families make Advent wreaths called Corona dell’Avvento by weaving fir branches into a crown dotted with red silk ribbons and four candles lit each Sunday before Christmas. Southern cities like Salerno create elaborate themed light art installations called Luci d’Artista illuminating streets with colorful scenes. Inside, sparkling lights adorn Christmas trees and nativity scenes in homes across Italy.  

Major Christmas lights events include:

From candle-lit wreaths to dazzling light shows, Italy shines bright for Christmas.


Italian Christmas Food Traditions

Food is integral to Christmas in Italy, with each region and town boasting unique holiday culinary customs, especially for the Christmas Eve feast and Christmas Day dinner. Two foods have become quintessentially Italian for the Christmas holidays – panettone sweet bread and the Christmas Eve dinner of the seven fishes.

panettone

Panettone Bread & Pandoro Cake

Panettone, a sweet yeast bread studded with raisins and orange peel, originated in Milan and is now synonymous with an Italian Christmas. Its distinctive dome shape comes from a long proofing process. Panettone is enjoyed primarily around this season, gracing holiday tables and serving as a popular Christmas gift, often wrapped in ornate boxes. 

Pandoro is a similar sweet bread made without raisins, topped with powdered sugar rather than fruit. It has a tall, star shape. Italians enjoy panettone as a dessert with coffee or liqueurs, and occasionally for breakfast over the holidays. Unique modern takes include versions with chocolate or nut coatings and various cream fillings. But the classic panettone remains an Italian Christmas staple, frequently given as a beloved edible gift.

Italian Christmas Eve Dinner: 7 Fishes

The Feast of the Seven Fishes is a cherished Italian Christmas Eve tradition. It entails eating at least seven seafood dishes on the night of December 24th. Some interpret this as a sacrifice before Christ’s birth, others as hospitality for the coming Savior. The number seven holds religious significance. While not every family serves seven fish dishes, many Italians honor the custom of abstaining from meat and feasting on fish and seafood instead on the night of December 24th. 

Popular Christmas dishes served include:

The array of seafood reflects regional specialties. Many Italians consider the Feast of the Seven Fishes to be the most important and meaningful part of their holiday meal traditions.

Italian Christmas Dinner Traditions on the 25th

Each region of Italy has its cherished dishes for the Christmas day meal. Traditional recipes capture local culture and ingredients.

Northern Italy

The Trentino table has canederli dumplings, venison in juniper sauce with polenta, and strudel.

Valle d’Aosta feasts on zuppa alla Valpellinentze (cabbage and fontina soup), carbonade Valdostana beef stew, and Mont Blanc chestnut cream cake.

In Piedmont, classic Christmas fare includes agnolotti del plin dumplings, brasato al Barolo pot roast, and Bonet chocolate amaretto pudding. 

Lombardy’s Christmas specialty is panettone, but also casoncelli stuffed pasta and cappone ripieno – stuffed capon.

Liguria enjoys ravioli with meat sauce, cima rolled stuffed veal breast, and pandolce fruitcake. 

In Veneto, traditional dishes include risi e bisi (rice and peas), baccalà cod Vicentina-style, and pandoro cake.

Emilia-Romagna feasts on cappelletti in broth, bollito misto boiled meats, and Christmas Panone fruitcake.

Central Italy

Tuscany enjoys cappelletti soup, Livorno-style cacciucco seafood stew, and roasted Grosseto chestnuts.

Marche serves up Vincigrassi lasagna, pasticciata braised roast, and pizza dolce Christmas bread.

Lazio dines on capon broth, roast lamb with potatoes, and spice cake.

Southern Italy

Campania feasts on fried eel, insalata di rinforzo pickled salad, and struffoli fritters.

Sicily enjoys lasagne, pork rolls, baked potatoes, panettone, and cannoli.

These regional dishes showcase Italy’s culinary diversity on Christmas day.


Exchanging Christmas Gifts in Italy

After midnight mass on Christmas Eve or before the big holiday meal on Christmas morning, Italian families gather around the Christmas tree to exchange gifts. When small children are involved, parents give gifts from Babbo Natale on Christmas morning, taking care to separate those from their gifts so as not to spoil the magic. 

The celebrations continue on Santo Stefano, December 26th, when Italians visit extended family and friends, bearing gifts like panettone, pandoro, or bottles of liqueur. Stockings are hung on Epiphany Eve for La Befana to fill with sweets, coal, toys, and books overnight. Exchanging thoughtful gifts between loved ones is central to Italian Christmas.


Italian Christmas Songs & Music Traditions

Music is central to an Italian Christmas, with many regions having unique singing customs for the holidays. In Cagliari, Sardinia, the medieval “Signum Judicii” chant is solemnly performed in the dark cathedral on Christmas Eve, illuminating only at the song’s end to symbolize the Spirit’s arrival. The zampognari bagpipe players wander streets across Italy performing folk songs. 

Traditional carols like “Dormi, dormi, o bel Bambin” from the north, “O Bambino mio divino” by Lotti, and “Tu Scendi dalle Stelle” are still widely sung. 

Modern Pop Italian Christmas Songs include:

– “A Natale puoi” by Alicia

– “Anche quest’anno è gia Natale” by Andrea Mingardi  

– “Buon Natale” by Raffaella Carrà

– “Buon Natale” by Cristina D’Avena

– “Buon Natale a tutto il mondo” by Domenico Modugno

– “È Natale” by Mina

– “Notte di Natale” by Claudio Baglioni

– “Le luci di Natale” by Max Pezzali

These melodies and lyrics capture the magic, joy, and nostalgia of an Italian Christmas.


Italian Christmas greetings and sayings

Italian Christmas Greetings & Sayings

I couldn’t end this article about Christmas traditions in Italy without sharing the most common ways Italians wish each other Merry Christmas & Happy Holidays during this special time of the year. I’ll also share a few very beautiful Italian proverbs about Natale.

Here are some wonderful ways to wish Buon Natale (Merry Christmas) during the holidays:

– Felice Natale e Buon Anno Nuovo – Happy Christmas and New Year

– Buon Anno Nuovo – Happy New Year

– Buone Feste a te e ai tuoi cari – Happy Holidays to you and your loved ones

– Ti auguro buon natale e buone feste – Wishing you a Merry Christmas and happy holidays

– Passa un bellissimo Natale – May you have a wonderful Christmas

Useful Italian words around the holidays include:

Italian WordPronunciationEnglish Translation
Natalenah-TAH-lehChristmas
Vigiliavee-JEE-lyahChristmas Eve
Santo StefanoSAN-toh stef-AH-noSt. Stephen’s Day
Capodannokah-poh-DAHN-noNew Year’s
Babbo NataleBAHB-boh nah-TAH-lehChristmas Father
La Befanalah beh-FAH-nahChristmas Witch
Re Magireh MAH-jeeWise Men
Panettonepah-neht-TOH-nehSweet bread
Regalireh-GAH-leeGifts
AlberoAHL-beh-rohTree
Presepepreh-SEH-pehNativity scene
Luci di Nataleloo-chee dee nah-TAH-lehChristmas lights
Mercatini di Natalemehr-kah-TEE-nee dee nah-TAH-lehChristmas markets
FesteFEH-stehHolidays/Festivities
Cenonecheh-NOH-nehChristmas Eve Dinner
PranzoPRAHN-tsohLunch
Famigliafah-MEEL-yahFamily
Amiciah-MEE-cheeFriends
CasaKAH-sahHome
Useful Italian Christmas words to learn


– Natale con i tuoi, Pasqua con chi vuoi – Christmas with your family, Easter with whoever you want.

– A Natale ognuno al suo focolare – At Christmas everyone should be at home.  

– Natale col sole, Pasqua col tizzone – Christmas with sunshine, Easter with glowing coals.

– Anno Nuovo vita nuova – New year, new life.


Final Thoughts

After exploring the diversity of Christmas traditions across Italy, a few key themes emerge that define the Italian Natale. 

The traditions Italians lovingly uphold offer insight into local history while creating meaningful connections during the holidays. From the Alps to Sicily, Christmas in Italy represents a series of treasured customs that families pass down through generations, keeping the past alive while welcoming the future. While the specifics may differ, Italians across the country share their heritage and faith through beloved traditions that make the season bright.

Whether you choose to visit Italy at Christmas or take a few Christmas concepts and apply them at home, you are now an expert on the best Italian Christmas traditions.


Frequently Asked Questions About Christmas in Italy

What are 3 facts about Christmas in Italy?

Three interesting facts are: 1) Italians celebrate with various regional gift-givers like La Befana. 2) Unique traditions include the Ceppo log and the Feast of the Seven Fishes. 3) Italy erected the world’s tallest Christmas tree in Gubbio at 750 meters tall. 

What is unique about Christmas in Italy? 

The diversity of traditions across different regions makes Italian Christmas celebrations special. Each area has distinctive foods, bonfire rituals, markets, decorations, and more.

Do Italians decorate for Christmas?

Yes, Italians decorate extensively with lights, trees, nativity scenes, wreaths, and elaborate shop displays. 

How long is Christmas celebrated in Italy?

Christmas festivities last around three weeks, from the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8th through Epiphany on January 6th. 

Does Italy close during Christmas?

Many businesses and restaurants close on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, St. Stephen’s Day, and sometimes New Year’s Day – as all of these are national holidays. But some tourist sites stay open.

What is Sicily like at Christmas?  

Sicilians celebrate with traditions like ornamented carts called Carri di Natale, swordfish dinner, and street bonfires. 

What is it like to spend Christmas in Italy?

Magical and festive, with lively markets, lights, concerts & events, and meaningful time enjoying regional food specialties with family.

Does Italy hang stockings for Christmas?

Italians traditionally hang stockings for La Befana to fill on Epiphany Eve rather than on Christmas.

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