SHARE
COPY LINK
For members

ITALIAN LANGUAGE

Ten words you need to know for an Italian Christmas

If you plan on ever celebrating the winter holidays in Italy, you'll want to familiarise yourself with this Italian Christmas vocabulary.

Christmas tree
An albero di Natale (Christmas tree) Photo by Tessa Rampersad on Unsplash

Starting on December 8th and not finishing until January 6th, Christmas is a big deal in Italy, and there’s a whole festive lexicon that goes with it.

Here are some words you’ll want to learn in order to celebrate Christmas (and New Year’s) like an Italian.

Natale

Let’s start with the obvious – you can’t have an Italian Christmas without knowing the word for Christmas itself: Natale. It comes, as you might guess, from the Latin word for ‘born’, in reference to the birth of Jesus.

With Natale come a number of related words you should know. There’s Babbo Natale, Father Christmas; l’albero di Natale, a Christmas tree; cena di Natale, Christmas dinner; biglietti di Natale, Christmas cards; luci di Natale, Christmas lights; and la messa di Natale, Christmas mass.

When used as an adjective, natale becomes natalizio/ia/i/ie; so addobbi natalizi are Christmas ornaments.

A Christmas tree with baubles in Verona. Photo: AFP
A Christmas tree with baubles in Verona. Photo: AFP

READ ALSO: Six quirky Italian Christmas traditions you should know about

Neve

If you’re in northern Italy this Christmas (or even some more mountainous parts of the centre-south), you may be lucky enough to experience neve, or snow.

Like ‘snow’, neve is an uncountable noun, meaning it doesn’t have a singular form in its own right. A fiocco di neve is a snowflake, and a pupazzo di neve is a snowman (literally, a snow doll).

To snow is nevicare, and if you’re dreaming of a white Christmas, that’s a direct translation into Italian: it’s a bianco Natale (or Natale bianco) you’re hoping for.

Slitta

Babbo Natale could never make it through all that neve without suitable transport options – he’ll need his trusty sleigh, or slitta.

And if your dream of waking up to a Natale bianco comes true and you want to imitate Santa on your own toboggan or sledge, you’ll be climbing into a slittino.

reindeer pulling sled
Santa couldn’t get anywhere without his slitta. Photo by Norman Tsui on Unsplash

As you might be able to infer from these nouns, the verb slittare means to slide or slip. While this is very much a physical action engaged in by tobogganers, it can also be used figuratively – you’ll often see it crop up in Italian news headlines, referencing things like political deadlines being pushed (‘sliding’) back.

Presepio

A presepio or presepe (two variations on the original Latin that mean the same thing) is a nativity scene – and few countries put as much effort into their presepi as Italy does.

Whether they’re floating on water, formed of 15,000 lights sprawling across a hillside, or being performed by live actors (a presepe vivente), come advent you’ll find a nativity scene to impress in almost every Italian town and city.

READ ALSO: Ten Christmas nativity scenes you’ll only see in Italy

Pope Francis in front of a classic nativity scene in St Peter’s Square at the Vatican in 2013.
Pope Francis in front of a classic nativity scene in St Peter’s Square at the Vatican in 2013. Photo: Filippo MONTEFORTE/AFP

Avanzi

Most households that celebrate Christmas around the world can expect to have substantial leftovers come Boxing Day from their Christmas cenone (‘big dinner’), and Italians are no exception.

Leftovers in Italian are avanzi. Your avanzi di Natale may well include lasagne, tortellini, and meats ranging from ox to veal to (possibly, but with no guarantees) roast turkey or chicken.

With any luck, you’ll also find some dolci di Natale ­– Christmas sweets or desserts, which typically include panettone or pandoro brioche-based cakes – in the pile of leftovers.

READ ALSO: The food and drink you need for an Italian Christmas feast

You can expect to see a panettone grace most tables in Italy on Christmas.
You can expect to see a panettone grace most tables in Italy on Christmas. Photo: Giuseppe Cacace/AFP

Vigilia

Everyone knows that Christmas has already effectively started by Christmas Eve (in fact in Italy it starts several weeks earlier on December 8th with il giorno dell’Immacolata Concezione or l’Immacolata, a Catholic holiday that celebrates the immaculate conception of Mary).

A vigilia is the day or night before any given day of the year, so the Vigilia di Natale is of course the night before Christmas, i.e. Christmas Eve.

In many parts of the country, it’s traditional to celebrate the Vigilia di Natale with the Festa dei sette pesci, or ‘Feast of the seven fishes’.

At least seven courses of seafood are typically served, with clams and oysters often making an appearance, as they’re seen as luxury items.

Oysters are sometimes served on Christmas Eve as a luxury item.
Oysters are sometimes served on Christmas Eve. Photo: Liza Pooor on Unsplash

San Silvestro

In most other countries, New Year’s Eve is just New Year’s Eve, but in Italy it’s yet another saint’s day: that of San Silvestro, a pope about whom little is known beyond that fact that he died on December 31st.

Italians celebrate San Silvestro in much the same way as everyone else around the world: with New Year’s Eve parties (veglioni di Capodanno), fireworks (fuochi d’artificio), counting down to midnight (fare il conto alla rovescia) and toasts (brindisi) when it arrives.

More local traditions include eating lentils, playing tombola (a kind of bingo), giving and wearing red underwear for luck, and chucking your junk out the window in preparation for new beginnings.

READ ALSO: Here’s why Italians eat lentils on New Year’s Eve

fireworks

Like most places, Italy typically celebrates New Year’s Eve with plenty of firework displays. Photo by Elisha Terada on Unsplash

Capodanno

After dancing the night away for San Silvestro, it’s time to get your resolutions in order as you wake up to capodanno – literally, the ‘head of the year’.

As in most countries, In Italy this is a public holiday, giving those suffering from the previous night’s festivities a chance to recuperate.

For the hardier amongst us, it’s an opportunity to participate in local new year customs like jumping in the River Tiber, an annual Roman tradition that dates back to 1946.

READ ALSO: Italian word of the day: ‘Capodanno’

Epifania

If Christmas in Italy starts several weeks earlier than it does anywhere else, it also finishes later: specifically on January 6th, with Epifania, or Epiphany.

That’s when the three wise men finally complete their journey and make it to the stable to find baby Jesus in his crib.

Three wise men tree ornament

Epiphany is when the three wise men find Jesus in the stable. Photo by Robert Thiemann on Unsplash

It used to be the day on which Italian children would receive their Christmas presents; these days that tends to happen on December 24th or 25th, as in the US and UK.

Nonetheless, it’s a public holiday, so children and parents alike still receive the gift of closed school and a day off work.

Befana

In many parts of the world Babbo Natale gets all the glory, but not in Italy.

Here the Christmas witch La Befana hops on her broomstick to distribute presents to boys and girls on the vigilia dell’Epifania, or the eve of Epiphany.

Legend holds that 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.

Three women dress up as La Befana.
Three women dress up as La Befana. Photo: Eleonora Gianinetto/Wiki Commons.

Member comments

  1. Nice article! This is gonna be our third Christmas in Italy and I’m looking forward to it. One question: is the feast of the seven fish really an Italian tradition? Some years ago I heard about it for the first time and I wanted to know more (eventhough I am a vegetarian). Then I found this article (in Italian) where they state that this tradition has been invented outside Italy (probably the USA): https://www.rivistastudio.com/festa-dei-sette-pesci/

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members

ITALIAN WORD OF THE DAY

Italian expression of the day: ‘Essere al verde’

If one of your Italian pals claims to be ‘at the green’ during your next night out, prepare to pay for their drinks

Italian expression of the day: 'Essere al verde'

Who hasn’t at least once in their life opened their online banking app and stared with absolute dread at the balance, wondering how on earth they managed to squander away their savings in the space of a week?

If it’s any comfort, it happens to the best of us and we are definitely not here to judge.

But let us not stray from the purpose of this article, which is to teach you the Italian way to say that you’re stone broke. So, the next time you’re as poor as a church mouse, you can share the news with linguistic richness, at least.

One of, if not the, most popular Italian idiom on the subject is ‘essere al verde’, which can be roughly translated to ‘being at the green’. Naturally, any possible use of the expression requires the speaker to properly conjugate the verb ‘to be’ (‘essere’), as in the following instances:

Q: Vuoi andare a cena fuori stasera?

A: Scusami. Sono al verde. Facciamo la prossima volta.

Q: Would you like to dine out tonight?

A: I’m sorry. I’m running low on funds. Next time.

Q: Riusciresti a prestarmi 20 euro?

A: No e non mi interessa se sei al verde.

Q: Could I borrow 20 euros from you?

A: No and I don’t care that you’re feeling the pinch.

As you can see from the above examples, the expression is mostly used in informal, ordinary conversations, though it is sometimes used in published pieces of work, especially in rather humorous and/or provocative newspaper articles and comic books.

– Di certo oggi i conti del Carroccio sono al verde. [From Italian newspaper La Repubblica, June 29th 2018]

– Surely, the Carroccio’s finances are strained at the moment.

Now that you have a basic grasp of how to use the expression, you might be wondering where ‘essere al verde’ came from.

You might actually be puzzled as to why Italians associate the colour green with being penniless seeing as, in the English-speaking world, the most popular hue for such delicate matters is red. 

Well, much like many other Italian idioms, ‘essere al verde’ originated from a pretty interesting ancient custom. In Renaissance-era Florence, wax candles whose bottom ends had been painted green were used to time public auctions. The latter were officially declared finished as soon as the candle would be ‘at the green’ (‘al verde’). 

Over time, the expression ‘al verde’ made its way out of Tuscan auction houses and became extremely popular all across the country as a way to say that someone was running low on something. For instance, if an army was ‘al verde di soldati’, it had very few soldiers left among its ranks. 

Eventually, the expression was also applied to personal finances – or, I should say, the dearth thereof. ‘Essere al verde di denari’ (i.e. ‘having little money left’) quickly became a widely used colloquial idiom and that’s precisely the lexical form that has made it all the way into modern Italian.

These days, native speakers are far more likely to use the shortened version of the expression (‘essere al verde’) rather than the full-length one (‘essere al verde di denari/soldi’) because, well, who likes to be long-winded when being strapped for cash?

Do you have an Italian word you’d like us to feature? If so, please email us with your suggestion.

SHOW COMMENTS