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Christmas For Members

What to expect from your first Italian Christmas

Jessica Lionnel
Jessica Lionnel - [email protected]
What to expect from your first Italian Christmas
What is Christmas in Italy like? Photo by Cristina Gottardi on Unsplash

If you're spending your first Christmas in Italy it can be hard to know what to expect. The Local's readers tell us about their firsts and how Natale in Italy differs from their home countries.

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Christmas for most is a time to be with loved ones and for food and drink. You might say this is universal in all Christmas-celebrating countries across the globe. However, celebrating this special event in a country other than the one where you were raised is always going to be different. 

After living in Italy for a while, you will be used to the Christmas tombola, multiple-course meals, and debates over whether panettone is better than pandora. But the first Christmas you spend in Italy can come with surprises.

Marina Webster moved to the Marche region full-time in 2010 from the UK. Her first Christmas in the country back in 2005 was rather eventful and she says it's a funny story for her to tell now.

We flew in late on the 24th, of course all the shops were closed,” she says, “A very kind online friend met us in his local village with two carrier bags of food for a Christmas lunch - some veggies, a chicken complete with head and feet though fortunately not still alive, and some wine.

A Christmas tree is lit at piazza San Lorenzo in Lucina near Via del Corso on December 15, 2023 in Rome. (Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP)

'Warm the house'

“The weather was cold and wet, the house was freezing and the friends who came with us thought Italy was warm all year round and had not brought warm clothes… we turned on the gas central heating and were horrified when we saw how quickly our bombola (gas bottle) emptied.

“I have learnt much since then. I was still so happy to be here. But the friends never came again!”

Her advice now is to arrive before Christmas Eve to get groceries and warm up the house. She also said that Christmas Eve is the main difference she notices between Italy and the UK, as in Italy this is when people have their big Christmas meal.

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“Back home we would all go out to the pub with our mates. Round here the bars are dead by five as everyone has gone home to family dinners.”

It’s definitely not all negative though; she loves the amount of effort the local comune puts into Christmas displays. 

It's more family orientated in Italy

The same applies to Leila Higgins in Rimini, who says she’s more than impressed with the amount of effort that goes into decorations in Italy. Originally hailing from the US, Leila celebrated her first Christmas in Italy when she was only seven, so she doesn’t remember her first one. 

She recommends visiting the presepi viventi, or live nativity scenes. A few towns stage these during the festive season, and Leila highly recommends the one in Montefiore Conca, a small town in Emilia-Romagna. 

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Whilst she thoroughly enjoys the nativity scenes here, she does say there is a huge difference between Christmas in Italy and the US.

“It’s a bit flat sometimes,” she says. “The season starts at Thanksgiving in the US. You start hearing Christmas music and seeing Santa all over. From that date on there are a series of traditional dates and events that follow which create a "special atmosphere". Here in Italy it's more about family only.”

Sharon Dennis, a Brit who has lived in Italy both north and south for the past 30 years, says Christmas in Italy is not a patch on Christmas in England. 

“I really miss everything to do with Christmas,” she says. “It doesn’t feel Christmassy here in Italy, at least not where I am. They put lights up and Christmas Carols are blaring but it’s sunny and there isn’t any magic in the air.

“I just wish I could find a little bit of that magic here too.”

She has even tried to re-enact a typical English Christmas in her household when her children were younger, with crackers, opening presents on the morning of Christmas day morning instead of Christmas Eve and turkey dinner, but she said it didn’t catch on.

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She said she misses typical British Christmas customs such as Christmas carols, tins of Quality Street, mince pies and decorations over the ceiling. Nevertheless, as she’s been living in Italy for three decades, she knows precisely what Christmas in Italy entails.

The Vatican City at Christmas time. Photo by Cristina Gottardi on Unsplash

“The 8th of December is the traditional day for the tree to go up and the nativity to be prepared. Baby Jesus is added on Christmas Eve and the three wise men are added on the 6th of January during Epiphany.  These Nativity scenes are found all over in houses and churches, some resemble proper little villages.

“Christmas is celebrated here on Christmas Eve with a meal based on fish and vegetables and no meat at all, due to the tradition of purifying your body before the holiday. Midnight mass is a must.

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“Then Christmas day is baked pasta followed by the main meal of meat.”

'No traditional Christmas dinner'

Susie Carpanini understands Sharon’s perspective. Hailing from Wales and based in Tuscany for just over three years, says she found her first Italian Christmas lunch strange as it was only her and her husband as opposed to her big family back home.

“We ate a selection of appetisers in a sunshiny dining room,” she says. “No traditional British Christmas dinner for us. It was a real treat not to have to cook. 

Via dei Pettinari in Rome, Italy, with the 2020 Christmas lights up. Photo by Gabriella Clare Marino on Unsplash

“Then we put on silly reindeer antlers and then walked into the village and called my family who were all celebrating exactly the same way as we used to.  I had a little cry. It was surreal. I’ve gone home every Christmas since!”

Lara Pastorino, a translator living in Emilia-Romagna for ten years, also missed a traditional UK Christmas when she first moved. However, she found it frustrating trying to recreate the same Christmas she had in England whilst living in Italy. She swiftly changed her mindset for her second Christmas, by devising a new menu with lasagne and making the most of Italian food.

“It was a lot better,” she says. “I miss the kids not doing a Christmas nativity at school, it's a shame they don't do that here. However, I love going to the Christmas markets here which are a little less commercial and full of lights and mulled wine and hot chocolate.

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'Just one present for the kids'

“I like getting my tredicesima (13th salary) in Italy, that's my favourite part. You need it by December.

“I find it weird how here they have just one present for the kids to open. They find it so excessive that we have all these different things for the kids.”

Lara says that gift-giving is the biggest difference she’s encountered between Italy and the UK.

“Here, it's really a secondary consideration whereas in England it's a big deal. I actually prefer less emphasis on gifts and more on time spent together, meals together, and nights out.”

She also says that the warmth of people from Emilia-Romagna has made her feel settled here during Christmastime, for example her local butcher gifting her a bag of suet so she can make mince pies this year.

“I must drop some in for him when I’ve done them,” she says.

Wherever you celebrate Christmas, it’s bound to be a special occasion. However, we hope for those of you that are spending your first Christmas away from home, these stories have been useful. Have a Merry Christmas. 

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