Christmas in Italy includes fascinating traditions and rituals rich in historical and cultural sentiment. If you are flying into Italy during the holiday season, you will want to know how Christmas traditions vary from your own. There’s no better way to experience the Christmas season in a foreign country than to celebrate their traditions alongside them.
What are some of the best Italian Christmas traditions to participate in while visiting Italy for Christmas?
If you are visiting Italy for Christmas and want to participate in authentic, Italian Christmas traditions while you are there, be sure to try:
- Italian Bingo
- Zampognari Bagpipes On The Piazza
- The Santa Claus Regatta
- A Ceppo On Display and Living Nativity Scenes
- The Feast of The Seven Fish
- Le Befana, The Good Witch
- Christmas Markets
- Mass At The Vatican
- Sweet Treats
Italy is rich in Christmas traditions wrapped in folklore, religion, and culinary rituals. Italians are famous for taking a celebration to a new level of revelry that always includes friends, family, and feasting. October in Italy through to the New Year is filled with holiday traditions you can participate in. However, there are certain customs and days of importance that you should know before heading to Italy for the holidays, and we will include ten of our favorite Italian Christmas traditions below.
We have delved into the holiday season in Italy by researching the most prominent and treasured traditions, finding out where they started and how they have evolved. As the Italians say: Buon Natale!
Christmas in Italy: Fun Facts About Italian Christmas Traditions
Before heading to Italy for the holiday season, you should know about some of the noteworthy dates and the customary traditions celebrated. Some of the most important are:
- December 8th- The Feast of Immaculate Conception
The Feast of Immaculate Conception is a national holiday and marks the day many Italian households decorate for the season. On this day, special masses are held and culminate with the Pope laying a wreath in Rome’s Piazza Mignanelli.
- December 13th- Santa Lucia
Santa Lucia is a Catholic holiday celebrated mainly in the Northern parts of Italy. Santa Lucia is said to ride in on a donkey to deliver gifts to obedient children. This day is usually celebrated with a meal of “ caserecce” (homemade pasta).
- December 24- La Vigilia
This is generally a day of family gathering where the children often read verses. The socializing goes on until nearly midnight when everyone goes to mass.
- December 25- Natale
Christmas Day generally culminates with the most important celebration of the season; Christmas Day Dinner. This day is all about feasting with family.
- December 26th- Santo Stefano
“Saint Stephen’s Day,” the day after Christmas, celebrates the first Christian Martyr. It is a public holiday in Italy
- January 6th- The Feast of the Epiphany
The celebration of Le Befana (an old woman who delivers gifts to children) is a national holiday in Italy, and small gifts are given to children. It is almost as big of a day as Christmas itself.
1. Italian Bingo
Tombola is the Italian equivalent of bingo and is often played all over Italy from Christmas to Le Epiphany on January 6th. The latter is a celebration where children wait for the Le Bufana (Christmas’s good witch) to bring gifts. The children play Tombola while they wait for her.
Tombola is played similarly to bingo in the United States. Numbers are picked from a drum and called out, and a straight line of numbers claims the win.
Skiing is a common way for Italians to celebrate Christmas and bring in the New Year. On the slopes of the Dolemite Mountains, it is not uncommon to find revelers swishing down the slopes with burning torches in hand to welcome the season.
Some die-hard revelers will even head out at midnight on Christmas Eve to welcome Christmas Day.
3. Zampognari Bagpipes On Piazzas
Zampognari are the traveling musicians who bring bagpipe music from the grand piazzas to the remote hillside villages of Italy and beyond. The tradition dates back to Roman times when shepherds would head out to town with their bagpipes to play in town squares and earn extra money.
The tradition holds that the shepherds visited the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem and played for the birth of Baby Jesus. This is why today, the Zampofnari bagpipers will often stop at Nativity Scenes to play across Italy.
It is said that it was Italy that brought about the impetus of “caroling” all over the world, starting with their tradition of bringing music during holidays from household to household.
4. The Santa Claus Regatta
It might not be what comes to mind when you think of Venice, but there is a Santa Claus Regatta along the canals each Christmas. Each year there are over 120 regattas held in Venice, and the Santa Claus Regatta is one of the most colorful.
This once-a-year event includes men, women, and children rowing boats decorated in various Christmas motifs and usually helmed by a jolly Santa. Along the canals, there is also a Santa Race at the same time. Nearly a thousand people dressed in Santa garb race through the streets, spreading holiday cheer along the canals.
5. A Ceppo On Display and Living Nativity Scenes
A Ceppo is the Italian version of a Nativity scene. While it sometimes refers to a yule log, more often, it is an A-frame wooden structure inspired by a Christmas tree with five shelves. The Tuscan-originated tradition usually leaves the bottom shelf for the family “Presepio” or Nativity scene, while the upper shelves are for nuts, fruits, or presents.
The top of the structure is usually adorned with an angel, star, or even pineapple to represent hospitality.
Many of these “Presepi” or Nativity Scenes can be seen outside of a family’s “Ceppo” in Italian churches and Piazzas across the country. The handmade “Presepi” is a sought-after gift in places like Naples, which is world-famous for its craftsmanship.
In more modern times, many “Living Nativity Scenes’ ‘ have also become a popular way to honor the season, whereby real people enact the classic story of the Mother Mary and Baby Jesus. One of the most popular is set in an actual cave on Sicily’s western coast at Custonaci in Trapani.
6. The Feast of The Seven Fishes
The Feast of The Seven Fishes happens each December 24th, or Christmas Eve in Italy, whereby each Italian family gathers to eat seven seafood dishes or two different types of fish prepared in seven different ways.
The custom dates back to the Roman Catholic tradition of abstaining from eating meat and dairy products on the eve of certain holidays. It is also seen as an honoring of the sea’s bounty, an important element of Italian life. In some households, the Feast of the Seven Fishes is the centerpiece meal of the entire Christmas season.
7. La Befana, The Good Witch
Le Befana, “The Good Witch,” holds as much weight as Santa Claus himself in Italy. Kids impatiently await her arrival when she comes bearing gifts; the only difference is that she waits until the day of the “Epiphany” on January 6th each year.
Le Befana is said to have been invited on a journey by the Wisemen to deliver gifts to Baby Jesus, but she declined as she had chores to do. She later came to regret her decision and now flies across the land on her broomstick, delivering gifts down a chimney to each child, just in case they are the Baby Jesus.
She is often pictured covered in soot from the chimney, holding her broom. Many Italians believe that she can ” sweep away” the problems of the year gone past and helps to start the new year on a good note.
Families will leave Le Befana, The Good Witch, a plate of food, and a glass of wine to give thanks in return.
8. Christmas Markets
Christmas Markets are legendary across Italy during the festive season when you won’t be able to turn a corner without bumping into one. They come stocked with seasonal decorations, handcrafted gifts, wine, and food.
Some of the most popular markets can be found in Veneto’s charming wooden chalets, Toscana’s piazzas, and at Rome’s Stadium of Domition all of which bring both Christmas gifts and spirit in equal measure.
The Italian Christmas markets generally start in November and run through the first week of January.
9. Mass At The Vatican
It is common for those living in or near Rome to come to honor mass at the Vatican on Christmas Eve. Some even make a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to do so if they live in further regions.
Regardless of religion, this mass is simply meant to spread the message of unity and peace.
This special Christmas Eve mass, although called “midnight mass,” usually starts around 9:30 pm at the St Peter’s Basilica.
There is an upper occupancy of 15,000 people and reserved tickets requested two to six months in advance are generally required.
10. Sweet Treats
Of course, every culture has its own version of a Christmas season sweet that must be eaten or exchanged. Italy is no exception and makes seasonal confections that can be found in especially shops and of course, Christmas Markets across the country.
Some of the most traditional are Panettone, Paneforte, and Torrone.
Panettone is a dome-shaped sweet bread that comes in many flavors, including raisin, candied fruit, or chocolate. The proofing process is complicated and can take several days which is likely why it only shows up once a year!
Panforte is a chewy Italian dessert containing fruits and nuts. This Italian Christmas dessert dates back to medieval times and includes an aromatic spice blend characteristic of the season of cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cardamom.
Torrone is a sweet chewy nougat delight that is prepared multiple ways in different regions across Italy. It can be chewy, hard, or crunchy but always incorporates whipped egg whites and sugar in generous portions.