It’s Christmas Time! A Guide To The Italian Holiday Traditions

Let’s discover together some of the traditions that make Italy special at this time of the year

Santa Claus is finally coming to Italy! December 25 is near and Italian kids, just like many other children all around the world, are looking forward to waking up on Christmas morning to see if they have been good enough to deserve some presents from the misterious man in red they call Babbo Natale.

However, Santa is not the only protagonist of our Christmas holidays. Let’s discover together some of the traditions that make Italy special at this time of the year.

The Christmas tree and the Presepe

In Italy, December 8, is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception and a public holiday. Italians usually take their time to decorate a Christmas tree and set up a nativity scene called Presepe or Presepio.

The latter is a quite heartfelt tradition: indeed, even in small villages it is quite common to find exhibitions of nativity scenes created with different techniques, set in various contexts (may it be Palestine or the local surroundings), with static or moving statuettes, and in small or large scale. There are also many outdoor nativity scenes: this year the Vatican hosts a Sand Nativity in St. Peter’s Square.

These works are important tokens of our culture and also have an interesting artistic value: there are some museums entirely dedicated to the art of Presepe and some of the artworks are also exhibited abroad. For example, if you happen to be in Pittsburgh and you feel like visiting the Carnegie Museum of Art, you will see an original 18th century Neapolitan presepio on display.

The typical Presepio

We also like to get in the nativity spirit. That’s why, every year, a Presepe vivente — a “living Nativity scene” — is held in many towns. Volunteers dress up and recreate rural scenes and Roman camps, show the arts and crafts of a time past, dramatize the birth of Jesus and the arrival of the Three Magi, honouring thus a tradition that dates back to 1223. That year, St. Francis of Assisi, who had recently visited the Holy Land, decided to stage in Greccio (Umbria) what is considered to be the first live nativity scene in the world.

Speaking of Umbria, Gubbio, on the slope of Mount Ingino, illuminates a tree created for the first time in 1981 and named in 1991 The World’s largest Christmas Tree by the Guinness Book of Records.

Christmas desserts: Panettone vs Pandoro

Christmas holidays also mean family gatherings, which consequently bring with them a lot of food! The menu of the various feasts may vary a bit from region to region, and even from home to home, but there are two desserts that mark the conclusion of everyone’s holiday meals: Panettone and Pandoro.

The Pandoro — “golden bread” — comes from Verona and its typical shape is that of an eight-pointed star. The Panettone is originally from Milan and is filled with candied fruit and raisin. Both come from the North of Italy, but they spreaded in the peninsula and fill every supermarket since November.

One of the most famous Italian desserts: the Panettone

Not only Babbo Natale: La Befana

The Befana, whose name seems to be the corruption of the word “epiphany” derived from the Greek, goes into the Italian homes during the night between January 5 and 6. She is depicted as an old lady who travels on a worn-out broom and fills the stockings that children left on the chimney with sweets, if they behaved properly, or charcoal, if they acted up during the year.

According to the Christian version of the legend, the Three Magi, who had lost their way to Bethlehem, stopped and asked an old lady, who showed them the way, for help. Then, they tried to convince her to travel with them to visit the newborn child, but she refused and stayed home. Having changed her mind, she later prepared a sack of sweets and looked for the Three Wise Men, but with no luck. So, she decided to knock on every door and gave every child a present, hoping one of them was the infant Jesus.

This Italian tradition is celebrated each year, even though the Befana has to “share the stage” with the now more popular Santa Claus: on January 6, many Italian towns (like Urbania, Marche) are livened up by old ladies flying from high bell towers and sharing sweets with the children.

Did you already know some of these traditions? Which one do you find the most interesting?

Why don’t you make yourself a present and travel to Italy these holidays? It seems like a nice way to discover more about the Italian Christmas spirit!