How to celebrate Christmas like the Italians

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How to celebrate Christmas like the Italians
Milan's Cathedral. Photo: Giuseppe Cacace/AFP

Christmas in Italy is a magical experience, but there are a few unique traditions you won't find in other countries. If you're hoping to have a truly Italian Christmas, make sure to incorporate at least some of the following.


1. Get the dates right

Photo: Pexels

The Italian festive season starts on December 8th with the celebration of the Immaculate Conception, and continues until the Epithany on January 6th, when the Three Wise Men arrived in Bethlehem. The most important date of the celebrations is Christmas Eve.

2. Know your Novena

Picture: Waiting for the Word/Flickr

The nine-day period before Christmas, known as the Novena, is when we remember the journey of the shepherds to the baby Jesus' manger. In rural areas in particular, children go from house to house dressed as shepherds and performing Christmas songs or poems, often in exchange for money or sweets.

3. Keep an eye out for bagpipers

Photo: Massimilianogalardi/Wikimedia Commons

In southern Italy and Rome, bagpipe-playing shepherds, or zampognari as they are known, perform tunes in piazzas, normally dressed in traditional sheepskin and wool cloaks. The pipers usually travel in pairs down from their mountain homes - it's quite a spectacle.

4. Prepare the presepe

Photo: nedrichards/Flickr

The tradition of presepi, or Christmas cribs, is widespread in Italy. Most churches, as well as other public areas and many Italian homes, will have at least one nativity scene on display. Styles vary and may depict just the holy family or a whole village, but the baby Jesus is usually added only on Christmas Eve. Sometimes, contemporary characters (such as ex-PM Renzi or Italian footballers) are included too.

In Rome, an annual exhibition displays 100 different cribs from all over the world, including miniscule versions carved into nuts, and all kinds of materials - even pasta.

5. Festive Francis

Pope Francis during last year's Christmas mass. Photo: AFP

In Rome, crowds gather in St Peter's Square for the Pope's evening mass on Christmas Eve, and at noon on Christmas Day, he appears at the basilica's balcony to give his blessing. He'll also be the one to add the baby Jesus to the Vatican's life-size nativity on the 24th.

6. A feast of fish

Photo: Koze/Flickr

 Christmas Eve was traditionally a day of fasting before Christmas for Catholics, with festivities starting only after the evening mass. This is still observed in some families, and the evening meal, known as the 'Feast of Seven Fishes', is usually based on seafood rather than meat. Clams and oysters are often used as they are seen as luxurious.

7. Religious roots

Castel Sant'Angelo. Photo: Andreas Tille/Wikimedia Commons

Italian Christmas celebrations are still very much based on their religious roots. At midnight on Christmas Eve, churches ring their bells and cannons are fired from Rome's Castel Sant'Angelo to celebrate the birth of baby Jesus. If you're interested, there will be plenty of Christmassy services and carol concerts at your local church, and they are beautiful to watch even for the non-religious.

8. The big dinner

Photo: Gaspar Torriero/Flickr

On Christmas Day, the food that makes up the Cenone (literally meaning 'big dinner') varies from region to region, but meat is normally back on the menu, often accompanied by pasta. The meal is followed by panettone, a sweet bread loaf originating from Milan, and other desserts filled with nuts, which were historically a symbol of fertility for the coming year.

9. Letters to loved ones

Photo: Sarabbit/Flickr

Christmas in Italy is a family affair, and as well as writing to Father Christmas requesting the latest must-haves, it is traditional for children to write letters to their parents, telling them how much they love them. The letters are usually decorated and tied up beautifully, and are read out after Christmas lunch.

10. Wait for the witch

Photo: ho visto nina volare/Flickr

Although nowadays many children receive presents from Father Christmas on Christmas Eve, a uniquely Italian tradition is that of 'La Befana', the old woman who brings gifts on Epiphany Eve. Legend has it the Three Wise Men came to her house and invited her to join their search for Christ. She was too busy with housework so declined, but later changed her mind, and to this day is still searching for the child, leaving presents for any good children she comes across.




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