Christmas in Italy: Key Traditions to Learn

Italy is a magnificent place to celebrate the festive season and for a great many reasons.

Christmas tree in Rome, Italy
Christmas tree in St. Peter's Square, Rome. Photo: Anelale Nájera on Unsplash.

The festive season is a singularly beautiful time of year, and one rich in culture and customs to boot. We each have our traditions when it comes to Christmas, whether hosting at home or spending time with family – but many of our traditions are naturally steeped in the specifics of British culture. Christmas, needless to say, is done a little differently in mainland Europe.

This Christmas might be the first that you are considering abroad – and if so, you couldn’t do much better than Italy. The stylish stiletto that is Italy’s silhouette is a magnificent place to celebrate the festive season and for a great many reasons. Several of those reasons are part and parcel of Italy’s unique identity – but what are they? What forms do Italian Christmas traditions take?

The Gubbio Christmas Tree

The Gubbio Christmas Tree, more accurately known as the Mount Ingino Christmas Tree, is one of the most astonishing Christmas light displays in the entirety of the West. It is also colloquially understood to be the ‘largest Christmas tree in the world’, on account of its familiar form. This is not a conventional tree, but rather a lighting installation that snakes up the side of Mt Ingino in the shape of the classic Christmas tradition. The switching-on of these lights has become a tradition in and of itself, and should not be missed!

La Befana

For the uninitiated, La Befana is an understandably spooky sight. This is a witch, more commonly associated in form with the traditions of Halloween some months before; however, La Befana is an extremely special figure in Italian tradition, being something of the nation’s equivalent to Father Christmas himself. She is a soot-laden, broomstick-riding hag with a penchant for gift-giving, and (according to some accounts) anointed by baby Jesus himself as the mother of all Italy’s children. Her gift-giving traditionally occurs on Epiphany Eve, the night of the 5th of January.

Nativity Scenes

Nativity scenes are, of course, not commodified by any one country. They can be found wherever there are churches, and as a result, are just as common across Italy as they are across the market towns of England. Nativity scenes are so common that you might even be thinking of creating your own an self-illuminated scene in your front garden! Italy has a special claim to such scenes, though, having been the cultural centre for many such practices.

Saint Lucy

Santa Lucia, or Saint Lucy, is a pivotal historical figure in Italy’s festive mythos. She is a Northern Italian legend, having undergone significant hardships to eventually become a patron saint for the blind. But her role is far bigger, insofar as she was the template for many of today’s Christmas myths. On the eve of Saint Lucy’s Day, she is said to ride in the sky via a flying donkey, disbursing gifts to children across the land!