Christmas Traditions in Italy

Christmas Traditions in Italy

One of the best things about an Italian Christmas is that it is celebrated for much longer than many other countries. Their festive season officially starts on December 8 – celebrated with the Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception. It lasts right the way through until January 6, the 12th day of Christmas, known as the Epiphany.

Meat-free Christmas eve

The Italians don’t eat meat on Christmas Eve, known as La Vigilia. Instead, they eat a variety of fish dishes – sometimes up to seven courses of seafood! This is typical on the day and night before any religious celebration; you are supposed to ‘eat lean’ and purify your body ahead of the holidays!

Italian bagpipes

In various Italian cities you are likely to find men playing bagpipes in the piazzas across town. Known as ‘zampognari’, they dress as shepherds; this is because, traditionally, it was the shepherds who made the journey from their mountain homes into the piazzas to earn some extra money by playing the bagpipes to anyone who would listen. Adapted for Christmas, this was based on the story of the shepherds who visited Jesus on the night of his birth and played the bagpipes for him. The pipers usually wear short breeches with leather leggings, a sheepskin vest with a woolly cloak plus a felt cap.

It is not only Santa who brings Christmas gifts. Right across Italy, on January 6 – marking the end of the holiday season – there is a visit from la Befana. This translates literally as ‘the good witch’, and legend says that on this date she will fill stockings with sweets for the children on the good list, and pieces of coal for the naughty children. But she didn’t stop there as she would also sweep the floor: tradition has it that she could sweep away the problems of the previous year and leave the family with a clean slate to go into the year ahead.

Sweet tooth
At Christmas, the Italians are especially big on sweet food. Of course, it varies across the country from region to region but panettone and pandoro are both well-known traditional sweet breads, enjoyed by all.

In most Italian households you will likely find a home-made Nativity scene and though they are all slightly different, the basic idea is the same and they are a popular decoration in Italian homes during the holidays.

The presepi are liked so much that there are often living nativity scenes (presepi viventi) in many cities – people dress in full costume to recreate and act the events of the eve of Jesus’s birth.

Christmas Trees

Putting the Christmas tree up on December 8th is an important tradition throughout Italy. The trees are usually fake, but more and more real trees are popping up in shops and on street corners.  The Christmas tree topper is usually a star (representing the comet that marked the location of baby Jesus to the Three Kings) or an angel (Gabriel, the Annunciation messenger).

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