Christmas in Italy: guide on food, traditions & destinations

Italy is usually associated with beautiful beaches, sunny days, and lots of gelato. But have you ever considered visiting Italy during Christmas time, when the lights start to shine on the streets, the smell of caldarroste and vin brulè tickles your nostrils, and Christmas trees are popping up on every corner?

Well, if you have not, after reading this article you will book your Italian Christmas trip straight away! Here is our complete guide on the celebration of Christmas in Italy.

How is Christmas celebrated in Italy?

As with any other religious festivity, Christmas has always had a special place in the heart of Italians. Even though nowadays Christmas has turned into a more commercial celebration, Italian Christmas traditions are still very well and alive!

Indeed, people start to celebrate it as soon as the month of December starts: the streets are full of lights, Christmas songs are played in every shop and radio station, and Christmas markets are organized in almost every town.

Christmas in Italy street decorations
Via: | rglinsky

Children -and let’s be honest, also adults- start to open their calendario dell’avvento (“Advent’s calendar”) on the first of December: every day, until Christams’Eve, they will find a small gift -usually it’s a piece of chocolate or a small toy.

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However, Christmas celebrations do not end on the 25th of December: indeed, one of the greatest perks of Christmas in Italy is that the celebrations last until the 6th of January, the day of Epifania. Biblically, Ephiphany is the day in which a star led the Re Magi – also known as the Three Kings or the Wise Men – to visit the baby Jesus after he had been born.

Christmas in Italy is also a precious occasion to spend more time with family and friends: people take advantage of their extended time out of work (usually, schools and offices are closed from the day before Christmas to the 6th of January) to organize nice gatherings and dinners, or to go on settimana bianca (White Week), which is the name Italians use to indicate their vacations to one of the many skiing locations in the North of the country.

Winter Christmas in Italy ski resort Alps

How do you say Merry Christmas in Italy?

Now that the idea of going to Italy for Christmas is starting to cross your mind, it might be useful to know how to wish Merry Christmas in Italian.

There are several ways to say Merry Christmas in Italian. The most basic and informal ones are Buon Natale (buon means good while Natale is the word used for Christmas) and Auguri (“best wishes”). A more formal way of wishing a good Christmas time is saying Vi Auguro un Sereno Natale.

Alternatively, you can just say Auguri di Buone Feste (“happy holidays”), to capture all the festivities that are comprised from the 8th of December (the Immacolata day) to the 6th of January (Epifania).

And if at this point you are wondering how to say “Happy New Year”…well, the answer is Buon Anno Nuovo!

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Italian Christmas traditions

As you might have understood by now, Italians can claim a multitude of Christmas traditions: some of them are very popular all along the peninsula, while some others are more specific to different regions and parts of Italy.

Since the variants are almost endless, here we are going to talk about some Italian Christmas traditions you can find from the North to South of the Bel Paese.

Christmas dinner in Italy

Christmas dinner is a pivotal moment of Christmas celebrations: it is a way to enjoy some nice typical Christmas dishes while spending some quality time with your loved ones.

Usually, the dinner starts around 8/8.30 p.m. and lasts until midnight, when children and adults can finally open their Christmas presents. And if you wondering how dinner can last so long…well, between a toast and a board game, the time flies very quickly!

Attention: Something else to point out about Christmas dinner in Italy is the fact that no meat is allowed on the table. In its place, fish become the star of the dinner: from the starter, which can be a carpaccio di pesce, to the main course, like a spaghettata di mare (noodles with seafood). Every dish is then served with different types of sides: among our favorites are lentils, cicoria ripassata (chickory cooked with oil and garlic), and different types of roasted veggies.

Christmas dinner in Italy table

Obviously, Christmas desserts are the perfect ending to this lovely dinner: from pandoro or panettone to torrone and dried fruit, there is something for everyone!

And if you think that this is the end, Christmas lunch is just around the corner! This time, meat is at the center of the table, with dishes such as tortellini ripieni di carne, lasagne alla bolognese or arrosto.

One last remark to make here is that every family has its own tradition when it comes to Christmas dinner and lunch, so don’t be surprised if you find a completely different menù -or even variations of the same dish- in different households.

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Italian Christmas decorations

Italians are big on their Christmas decorations: early December, people start decorating their homes, following some traditions that have been in place for centuries.

The decoration of the Christmas tree is for sure one of the most popular ones: the tree – usually pine or fir – is usually mounted on December 8th and taken down on January 6th. The tree is decorated with balls, lights (with many colors), bows and ribbons. Initially, candles, oranges, dried fruit or even biscuits were used. Obviously, the star on top cannot be forgotten.

#myrimini #xmas #capodannorn2017 #regram di @joanin87 ・・・ ?????@assaggidivini @comunerimini #rimini #comunerimini #vivorimini #capodannoRN2017 #ig_rimini_ #storytelling #raccontarimini #vivoemiliaromagna #photog
Via: | Comune Rimini (embed)

Nowadays, more and more families choose a fake tree, which is way easier in maintenance and more environmentally friendly. Indeed, in the past years, different controversies have arisen after huge pine trees have been cut and transported from afar just to be placed one of the main Italian squares, with all the environmental and economic costs associated with this.

Presepe is also very popular among Italian Christmas traditions: presepe represents the childbirth scene, i.e. the day of Jesus’ birth. Recurring attributes are the stable with Mary and Joseph, accompanied by an ox and a donkey. In the middles of the stable, a crib is placed. On Christmas Eve, baby Jesus is laid in the crib…

This central scene can then be enriched with several other statuine (small terracotta statues), which represent the different characters that were living in Bethlem at that time: from the shepherd with his sheep to the artisan, the trader, and the fisherman.

Another common Christmas tradition is to place a mistletoe branch on the front door: this is not only a way of wishing good luck to everyone who is entering the house. Indeed, it is also said that if you kiss your loved one under it, your love will last forever. Always worth trying!

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Christmas gifts

I bet you would assume that come Christmas Day, the well-behaved Italian children would be getting a little present from Babbo Natale (Father Christmas), and that would be it. Well, you might then be wrong!

Indeed, in Italy, there are four main characters that bear gifts during the Christmas period! Of course, Father Christmas is one of them. But who are the other three?

The first one in chronological order is San Nicolò, who visits the children of several European countries between the night of the 5th and the 6th of December.

Then is Santa Lucia, protector of blind people, who, on the night of the 12th of December, travels with her small donkey and brings some nice gifts to the well-behaved kids. Santa Lucia is mostly common in North Italian regions.

On the contrary, la Befana is an old lady that visits children in Southern Italy households. Italians say that la Befana tutte le feste porta via, because she comes on the 6th of January, bringing about the end of the Christmas holidays. If a child has misbehaved, la Befana would bring him some -sweet- coal; otherwise, they would receive candies and small gifts.

La Befana vien di notte
Via: | Sabrina (embed)

Christmas food in Italy: the desserts

As you might all know by now, Italians love to eat! And this is especially true for their traditional Christmas foods! As we spoke about some of them before, here we would like to talk more specifically about Italian Christmas desserts.

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Sweets and desserts are big on the tables of Italian during this time of the year: caldarroste (roasted chestnuts), vin brulè (mulled wine) panettone, and pandoro are just some of the most popular ones!

Christmas food in Italy panettone
Via: | N i c o l a, CC

Indeed, there are a variety of regional delicacies that are overlooked by the most: mostaccioli (spiced biscuits covered in chocolate, typical of Campania), struffoli (a Neapolitan treat made of deep-fried balls of sweet dough), panpepato (a spiced bread that comes from Tuscany), and zelten (from Trentino Alto-Adige, a cake made with nuts and candied fruits).

Every family has its own recipe, which is passed on through generations: preparing these regional Christmas treats is indeed a bonding experience for Italian families, which brings together people of different ages for the occasion.

Where to spend Christmas in Italy

Christmas in Italy is not just the right time of the year to enjoy some nice food and traditions: it is indeed a great opportunity to visit the beautiful Italian cities in a new, more magical light!

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5 Italian cities to visit during Christmas time

Here are our top 5 cities to visit in Italy during Christmas time

Christmas in Rome

If you have never been to Rome, then visiting the città eterna during Christmas time might be the perfect opportunity for you! Indeed, the temperature is not as low as in Northern cities, but the atmosphere is certainly on point!

From the huge Christmas tree in Piazza Venezia to the Christmas market in Piazza Navona, everything speaks Buon Natale! And if you are lucky, you can even see the Pope during the Midnight Mess in St. Peter’s.

The only downside is that the city might be quite full of tourists during this time of the be prepared to lose yourself in the crowd!

Christmas in Rome Coloseum Christmas Tree

Christmas in Florence

Spending the holiday season in Florence is a great idea if you like a mix of culture, Christmas shopping, and good food!

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Florence is indeed one of the greatest expressions of the Renaissance in Italy: from the Santa Maria al Fiore Cathedral, with the Brunelleschi cupola, passing to the Medicean Chapels, ending with the gracious Chruch of San Miniato al Monte, with a spectacular view of the city from above.

Spending the Christmas holidays in Florence means also eating lots of Panpepato, the Tuscan version of the Panettone! Rich in nuts, spices, and raisins, this is the perfect treat to pair with a hot glass of mulled wine!

Christmas in Florence Christmas Tree Santa Maria al Fiore Dome
Via: |, CC

Christmas in Milan

Milan is the most fast-paced and advanced city in Italy, yet Christmas traditions are still very well and alive!
Indeed, during the Christmas period, Milan becomes a wonderland of lights and decorations. A must-see is also the huge Christmas tree placed inside the Galleria Vittoria Emmanuele: last year, it was all Swarowski-themed.

For a more traditional tree, check the one in the adjacent Piazza Duomo, and lose yourself admiring the Madonnina on top of the dome!

Christmas light preparation in the Galleria Vittoria Emmanuele © Original Photo

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Finally, you cannot spend Christmas in Milan without eating Panettone! This classic Christmas bread was born here at the end of the 19th century. The original recipe includes wheat, butter, eggs, sugar, raisins, and other fruits and peels, but nowadays you can find several variations that accommodate all tastes…you will love it!

Christmas in Milan Duomo Christmas Tree
Via: | Federico Moroni, CC

Christmas in Naples

Christmas in Naples is a true feast! The city, home of the traditional presepe, is full of festive lights, decorations, and street musicians. Our advice is to check out Via San Gregorio Armenio, which is completely dedicated to the centennial art of making presepe.

Enjoy struffoli, mostaccioli, and rococò…your tummy will be very happy! And don’t forget to eat pizza…after all, this delicious food is good all year round.

And don’t be scared if you hear the botti (“firecrackers”). After all, these are part of the Christmas tradition in Naples as well!

Christmas in Naples Via San Gregorio Armeno
Via: | Umberto Rotundo, CC

Christmas in Trento

Maybe you have never heard of this small city in the heart of the Alps. Well, Christmas is the perfect time to discover it. Indeed, the Christmas market organized in Piazza Fiera attracts every year thousands of visitors from all around Europe.

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Characterized by handicrafts, traditions, and a very special atmosphere, it is also a “green market”: great importance is attached to sustainability and the valorization of local and organic products. Here you can have a cider, made with locally-grown apples (the region Trentino has one of the greatest production of apples in Italy), or a slice of apple strudel.

Trento is also close to many famous ski areas, such as Madonna di Campiglio and Cortina d’Ampezzo. From there, you can also visit Lago di Garda, the biggest lake in Italy, with its beautiful small towns and mesmerizing natural landscapes!

The only con here is the cold, as the temperature can go down really low during the winter months!

Christmas in Trento christmas market
Via: | darvina06, CC

In conclusion

These are our top five recommendations if you decide to spend Christmas in Italy. However, the options don’t end here!

Italy is such a beautiful and diverse country, full of beautiful cities, ski resorts, Christmas markets, and amazing natural locations that we haven’t had the space to mention in this short guide, but that deserve at least a visit, not only during Christmas time.

At this point, it must be clear that our suggestion is to book your next Christmas vacation in Italy, and to enjoy all of its traditions, foods, and the magic of its lights and decorations!

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