My good friend Laura Rossi of Como, Italy, mother of 2 beautiful children, shared with me some of the many Italian Christmas traditions taking place during the month of December.
Beautiful Christmas in Italy is like no other celebration! When we study Christmas around the world, Italy is one of the unique countries we look at: shepherd bagpipers, elaborate Nativity scenes, and a kind witch that flies on a broom. The traditions of Christmas in Italy are based heavily on the religion of Christianity (Catholicism), and on the Italian holiday calendar. Christmas in Italy isn’t only the special day of December 25: throughout December and January there are a number of religious holidays to mark the festive season.
DECEMBER 6: La Festa di San Nicola. This festival in honor of St. Nicholas, the patron saint of shepherds, is celebrated in towns such as Pollutri. According to tradition, St. Nicholas saved the people of the town from a famine by feeding everyone with a handful of fava beans. To commemorate the miracle, the town lights fires under enormous cauldrons, in which fave (broad beans) are cooked, then eaten ceremoniously.
DECEMBER 8: L’Immacolata Concezione – Immaculate Conception celebrates the birth of the Virgin Mary (Mother of Jesus), born without sin. The day is marked with celebrations and processions throughout Italy and with most people off from work, it is also the day when many Italians put up Christmas trees and other holiday decorations.
DECEMBER 13: La Festa di Santa Lucia. The Feast of Santa Lucia is originally from Sicily, and now celebrated in some areas of the northeast as she brings kids extra gifts before Christmastime. It is sometimes celebrated by families with large traditional feasts of homemade pasta, and special dishes.
DECEMBER 24: La Vigilia di Natale. On Christmas Eve during the evening, Italian families and friends have the traditional “cenone,” that is the BIG Italian dinner.
The presepio (manger or crib, and the Nativity) is the center of all Christmas decorations in Italy. The Nativity scene represents in miniature the Holy Family in the stable and is the most common symbol of Christmas for families. The presepio is actually more important than the Christmas tree in Italy, as it represents the real meaning of Christmas according to the Catholic Church. Almost all Italian churches will display their presepio outside, or in the main piazza (town square); some are elaborate, others rustic, some have live animals, and some are extremely old and valuable.
At midnight, zampognari and pifferai, shepherd bagpipers and flutists who represented the original shepherds visiting Baby Jesus, come down from the Abruzzi Mountains around Rome to play music and entertain the crowds of people at religious shrines in the area. The zampognari and pifferai wear traditionally colorful costumes with vests of sheepskin, knickers, white stockings, and large cloaks. Here are some in a video:
DECEMBER 25: Natale Christmas is referred to as Natale (meaning birthday in Italian). According to the most authentic Italian tradition, the gifts for the children brought Christmas Eve are brought by Gesu’ Bambino (Baby Jesus); Santa Claus is a recent new addition that is taking place as well, but it’s not the original Italian one. For people living in Roma, the Pope gives a blessing in the square of the Vatican City, at noon on Christmas day from his balcony.
DECEMBER 26: La Festa di Santo Stefano. St. Stephen’s Day marks the announcement of the birth of Jesus and the arrival of the Three Wise Men.
DECEMBER 31: La Festa di San Silvestro. New Year’s Eve
JANUARY 1: Il Capodanno. New Year’s Day
JANUARY 6: La Festa dell’Epifania – The Feast of Epiphany, which celebrates the visit of the Three Kings to Bethlehem, is when children in Italy hang up their stockings (also celebrated in Spain as “Los Reyes Magos“). Instead of Santa Claus, children are expecting Befana. She is a kind, witch-like character who rides around on a broom. The legend is that the Three Wise Men, I re magi, stopped at Befana’s hut to ask directions on their way to Bethlehem and asked her to join them. She said no, she was too busy. Later a shepherd asked her to join him in paying respect to the Baby Jesus. Again, Befana said no. Later when it was dark and she saw a great light in the skies, she thought perhaps she should have gone with the Wise Men. So she gathered some toys that had belonged to her own baby, who had died, and ran to find the kings and the shepherd. But Befana could not find them or the stable. Now, each year she looks for the Christ Child. And each year since she can not find him, she leaves the fills the stockings with gifts (like sweets or i dolciumi) for the good children of Italy and pieces of charcoal (il carbone) for the bad ones.
Here are a couple of videos that showcase Christmas in Italy. The first two are traditional Christmas carols, and the third shows zampognari and the presepio.
See all of our Christmas Around the World articles! So many amazing traditions from different cultures celebrating Christmas.