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Why is bingo so popular in Italy at Christmas?

Clare Speak
Clare Speak - [email protected]
Why is bingo so popular in Italy at Christmas?
Photo by Mick Haupt on Unsplash

In many parts of the world, a game of bingo is associated more with pensioners than fashionable parties. But in Italy it’s an essential part of the holidays for people of all ages.


On Christmas day, Christmas Eve, and at many New Year's Eve parties in Italy the main activity - other than eating - is a game of tombola, which is very similar to bingo.

Tombola was created in Naples in the 1700s as an alternative to gambling, which the church didn’t approve of.

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The story goes that King Charles of Naples made a concession to the Catholics and said he would ban gambling during the Christmas period only. But Neapolitans found a way to get around the new law by playing tombola at home during the holidays. 

It’s still enormously popular today, particularly in southern Italy, so if you’re invited to a New Year’s Eve party at someone’s home don’t be surprised when all the guests gather round as the tombola board is brought out.

Tombola features a billboard with numbers from 1 to 90 and a card for each player with boxes containing 15 random numbers. These can be homemade using pens and paper, though many families will have a shop-bought tombola game.

Each player has one or more cards, for which they need to pay a small sum of money, or can give other items, such as sweets. This becomes the prize for the winner.

One player acts as the caller, and just as with bingo in other countries there are humorous names and associations to go with each number, which here are derived from Neapolitan dialect.

Players check off the numbers as they’re called, or cover them with dried beans, pasta, nuts, orange peel, or whatever they have to hand. The winner is the first to cover all of the numbers on the card.

The winner of the game is whoever 'makes the tombola', or who is the first to cover all the numbers on one of their cards, though there are sometimes also smaller prizes for getting, for example, five numbers in a row.

READ ALSO: Panettone or pandoro: Which is the best Italian Christmas cake?


If you have Italian family members you’ll know that they can get really into this game and that it can go on for a while, especially if there are children involved.

Another popular option is to get out a pack of cards near the end of the meal and linger at the table playing a game of scopa or buracco, eating wedges of panettone (or pandoro), and refilling the moka pot (or making another trip to the wine cellar).

Are you a fan of tombola? What other Italian Christmas traditions does your family enjoy? Let us know in the comments section below.


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