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 LANGUAGE

Five tips that make it easier to learn Italian

Learning Italian can be tricky to begin with, but there are ways to help smooth the path to proficiency.

Five tips that make it easier to learn Italian

The journey to fluency in Italian can sometimes feels like it’s all uphill. Here are some tips for making things a little easier.

1. Practice speaking Italian as soon as you can

Speaking in Italian can feel daunting when you’re a beginner, but the best strategy is to throw yourself in at the deep end and not worry too much about making mistakes, as this is one of the quickest ways to get comfortable with the language.

  • If you live or work with someone who speaks fluent Italian, try to switch the conversation to Italian just for a few minutes a day to start with.
  • Set up a regular language exchange with a native Italian speaker. In Italy you’re likely to find plenty of Italians keen to practice their English and willing to correct your Italian in exchange. If you’re somewhere more remote, you can arrange online sessions through platforms like Tandem.
  • Look for places that hold language events, such as cafes or the weekly gatherings such as those held by the Koiné – Italian Language Centre in Rome where you can chat to other people learning Italian.
  • Join conversation groups through the Meetup app.
  • Look up ‘fare volontariato’ along with the name of your town to find volunteer opportunities in your area, where you will get to practice your Italian.

2. Language schools

There are a plethora of private language schools in Italy for foreign students wanting to learn Italian, with a wide range of prices and time commitment levels to choose from.

You may also be eligible for a free or heavily state-subsidised course at your local CPIA (Centro provinciale per l’istruzione degli adulti, or adult education centre). While most often most widely attended asylum seekers and refugees, in theory all foreign nationals over the age of 16 with a valid residency permit have access to these language programmes.

The advantage of language school is that it gives you a structure to your learning, and gives you skills in the four areas of reading, writing, speaking and listening, as well as learning about Italian culture. The class times are often flexible and you can choose between online and classroom lessons.

The downside is that with large class sizes, there isn’t a lot of opportunity to practice speaking, which is why supplementing language school with speaking opportunities can really help.

3. Italian media

Watching Italian TV with subtitles is always helpful. If you don’t have a TV, you can watch some Italian channels online, including programmes by national broadcaster Rai.

On Netflix there are popular Italian series including Zero, Baby, and Suburra: Blood on Rome.  

Italy’s podcast industry is currently growing rapidly, with new programmes popping up all the time – you can find a list of some of the best podcasts to get you started here.

READ ALSO: Some of the best podcasts for learners of Italian

Listening to Italy songs can help with pronunciation. The famous song Con te partirò, with its slow tempo, is a good one to get started with. Here are some other songs that can help you learn Italian.

4. Graphic novels and books

When you first arrive, reading children’s books out aloud can help you learn how to make your mouth form those tricky words, as well as give you confidence when you can read and understand the whole of The Very Hungry Caterpillar (Il piccolo bruco maisazio) in Italian.

If you want something more targeted towards adults, books which have the Italian one page accompanied by an English translation on other, like Jhumpa Lahiri’s In altre parole/In Other Words, are a good option as they allow you to easily and quickly check the meaning of words or phrases you don’t know.

Graphic novels by popular Italian writers and cartoonists like Zerocalcare and Gipi are also a great way in to the language, as you’ll learn more colloquial Italian while having pictures to tell you what’s going on.

You can borrow books from your local library or buy them from second hand shops and mercatini (markets), as well as at bookstores like Feltrinelli.

5. Creating new daily habits

Forming small but regular new habits will keep up your language learning without it feeling too overwhelming.

  • For example, keep a little notebook or a place on your phone where you can write down new words you come across in your daily life. During the week, while on the bus or waiting to meet a friend, keep looking at those words to get them stuck in your head.
  • When you’re caught off guard in situations, such as someone asking in a shop, “Posso aiutarla?” (‘can I help you?’), and you automatically blurt out English, don’t feel too disheartened. Instead, write the scenario down, find out the different ways to respond, and memorise them, so that next time it automatically comes out. “Sto solo guardando, grazie” (‘I’m just looking, thank you’) is always a useful one.
  • Add some Italian accounts to your social media so when you scroll, you’re seeing and hearing Italian. Italian news sites are a good place to start, then seek out the profiles of Italians who specialise in the kinds of things that naturally interest you, whether that’s cooking, fashion, football or something else.
  • Listen to Italian podcasts or audiobooks on your way to work or when doing the washing up, whether it’s about a topic you’re interested in, or a specific language learning podcast like ‘Coffee Break Italian’.
  • Plan out what you’re going to say in a new situation before you say it and commit to it in Italian, for example booking an appointment, ordering food, speaking to your neighbour or language teacher.

Italian language learning can be a slow process but keep going, take the small wins and one day, we promise, you will be understood. 

Find more articles on learning the Italian language here.

SHOW COMMENTS