Italy does Christmas very well, but there are a few traditions which may seem confusing or downright bizarre to the uninitiated. Here are six of the key ingredients for a truly Italian festive season, explained.
1. A month of festivities
We've all got that one friend who wants to put on the Christmas music and dig out their reindeer jumper in September, and if you are that friend, you'll feel right at home in Italy where the festive season stretches out for almost a full month.
Italians get into the Christmas spirit on December 8th when they celebrate the Immaculate Conception. A fun fact to bring out at holiday parties is that this festival actually marks the conception of Mary rather than that of Jesus , as God intervened to absolve Mary of original sin while she was still in the womb.
December 8th is when many Italian homes and towns first put out their decorations, while a cannon is fired from Rome's Castel Sant'Angelo to mark the start of the celebrations, and the season continues until Epiphany on January 6th, when the Three Wise Men arrived in Bethlehem, something which is reenacted by horsemen in Rome's Piazza Navona.
Decorations in Verona. Photo: AFP
Advent is a big deal in Italy, with special services in churches around the country on the Sundays leading up to Christmas.
And 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 during this time, often in exchange for money or sweets.
Unlike in the UK and US, the most important date of in Italian Christmas is Christmas Eve, though the exact order and kind of celebrations varies between regions and individual households.
2. Bagpipes and bingo
In Italy, Christmas has retained its religious roots more than in many other countries, so you'll hear celebratory church bells on Christmas Eve to mark Jesus's birth, but there are a few more recent and somewhat bizarre traditions.
In southern Italy and Rome, bagpipe-playing shepherds, or zampognari, 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.
And across the country, though again particularly in the south, it's very common to play tombola, an Italian game similar to bingo, throughout the winter holiday.
3. Not your usual nativity
You're probably already familiar with the idea of a Christmas nativity scene. But Italians go all out with their nativities (presepi). You'll find them in every church as well as other public areas and family homes, often depicting the entire town of Bethlehem in painstaking detail.
Sometimes there's a modern twist with contemporary characters introduced, such as a pizza-maker, favourite footballers or politicians.
In Rome, an annual exhibition displays 100 different presepi from all over the world, including miniscule versions carved into nuts, and all kinds of materials – even pasta.
But it's Naples that's the true home of the presepe: the street Via San Gregorio Armeno is sometimes called Christmas Alley as its shops all sell figures for the cribs, from the wacky to the traditional.
Photo: Roberto Salomone/AFP
4. Plenty of food
Food is an integral part of Italian culture and that's more true than ever at Christmas. December 24th 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.
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.
Panettone is an essential. Photo: Depositphotos
5. Lucky thirteen
One part of Christmas that's eagerly awaited by many workers is 'the thirteenth' — a festive bonus amounting to an extra month's wages, just in time for gift shopping. It was first introduced under Benito Mussolini's Fascist regime to reward factory workers, which was later extended to all employees.
The bonus will come as a welcome surprise to Brits or Americans, whose bonuses in their home countries are usually linked to performance, but the custom exists in other countries including Germany and Brazil. Unfortunately though, a growing number of companies, especially small ones, are finding it hard to pay the Christmas bonus.
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.
This article was originally published in 2017