Italian Christmas Traditions

Love of ritual survives and abounds everywhere

Christmas tree at Colosseum at dusk
Richard I'Anson/Lonely Planet Images/Getty Images

Christmas trees and gift-giving have long been staples of Italian Christmas, il Natale. After all, gift-giving predates modern consumerism by millennia, and Italian shops and city centers have long traditions of decorating and making things for Christmas—even when things were more modest. There is nothing like a stroll through Piazza di Spagna at Christmas, or Trastevere, to get a sense of Italy's appreciation for the holiday spirit, with the strings of lights everywhere, the lit storefronts, and the chestnuts roasting at every corner.

But the special thing about Christmas in Italy are the shared and joyful traditions of families and communities, be they religious rituals, artisanal and artistic customs, or gastronomical traditions—and there are certainly plenty of those. Of all of those. Indeed, in cities and towns and at tables all over Italy, beginning weeks before Christmas and lasting till the Epiphany, century-old folklore and custom spill from the street into the homes and vice versa to make this season of the year an all-around celebration of the heart and the senses.

Christmas lends itself particularly to the display of the richness of local and regional traditions that, because of Italy's particular history, are deeply rooted, long cultivated, and reverently taught and observed, providing a deep and colorful fabric of continuity and communality.

Santa Lucia and La Befana

For most Italians, the celebration of the Christmas season begins on Christmas Eve, or shortly before, and runs until the Epiphany—the traditional Twelfthtide.

Some, though, date the beginning of the season at the Immaculate Conception, on December 8, while others still start the observance on December 6 with the celebration of San Nicola, or St. Nicholas, the patron saint of mariners and the weak, from whom the tradition of St. Nicholas and Babbo Natale originates. Towns that celebrate San Nicola as their patron saint commemorate with the burning of fires and processions of various kinds.

The other pre-Christmas Day observance of the season, at least in some places, is Santa Lucia, on December 13. According to tradition, Santa Lucia was a martyr who took food to persecuted Christians held in the catacombs. In some places in Italy, particularly in the North, the day of her death is commemorated with gift-giving, usually in addition to Christmas but sometimes in its place.

After Christmas Eve, which is almost as important as Christmas, and Christmas Day, of course, with gift-opening and long lunches and gatherings, Italians celebrate Santo Stefano, on December 26. A day ritualized for more family gatherings and a continuation of Christmas, it commemorates this important saint, martyr, and messenger in the dissemination of Christianity.

Of course, Italians celebrate New Year's Eve (San Silvestro or the Vigilia) and New Year's Day (Capodanno), like the rest of the West, and finally, they celebrate the day of the Epiphany or Epifania, on January 6, personified by the figure of the Befana. Lore has it that the Befana, an old witch-looking lady on a broom with a pointy hat and long skirt, was invited by the Magi to help them take gifts to Bethlehem for the birth of Jesus. After she turned down their invitation, however, she changed her mind and set out to find them and newborn Jesus, and in so doing began to knock on every door, leaving gifts for the children. Storied, much celebrated and loved, particularly by children (bad children get coal, good ones get gifts, onions, and chocolates)—some families even observe it as the main gift-giving holiday—the Befana brings the Italian holiday season to a festive close, sweeping away any remnants of the old year and leaving good omens for the next.

Il Presepe: The Nativity Scene

In the vein of the birth of Christ, one of the most beautiful celebrations of Christmas in Italy comes in the form of presepi, traditional artisanal nativity scenes that some communities have elevated to an art form, making them the cornerstone of their folklore and economy.

Thought to have originated in Naples around the year 1,000, presepi (meaning trough in Latin) began as religious displays for the churches, featuring the usual manger scene and characters. Soon, however, they expanded in focus as slices of life and broadened to the greater culture of the city, spreading into homes and giving birth to whole artisanal schools and traditions.

In Naples, perhaps best known now in the world of presepe art, the nativity scenes, made of a variety of materials, include figurines of colorful pagan and sacred figures—from shepherds and fishermen to street vendors, priests, and magi—dressed in cloth costumes and sculpted in fine detail. Multileveled like villages, they feature mangers and shops, osterie and fish markets; they include buildings and landscaping and the sea, bringing together sacred life and real life.

In Bologna and Genova the presepe tradition manifested in similar but singular ways, also depicting special local scenes and their own particular set of characters (for example, in Genova's nativity scenes there is always a beggar; sometimes there are patron saints).

At Christmas, in places such as Naples and Bologna but also small towns throughout Umbria and Abruzzo that have a presepe tradition, nativity scenes both small and life-size fill squares, churches, and many private homes, opened to visitors for the occasion. And in many places, including Naples, nativity scenes are year-round attractions, surrounded by a whole economy of production, from workshops to stores.

Ceppo and Zampogne

Most everyone in Italy decorates a tree and hangs stockings, though, of course, traditions vary and morph. The old Tuscan tradition of the ceppo—a Christmas log, a huge chunk of wood chosen and dried specifically to burn in the fireplace over the night of Christmas, around which the family gathered and shared simple gifts of tangerines, dried fruit, and baked goods—is slowly fading as modern houses no longer accommodate the fireplaces of old.

But communal meeting points of celebration remain important for everyone. In some towns in Sicily fires are burned in the squares on Christmas Eve to prepare for Jesus's arrival, and people gather to share gifts. In some towns there are processions. In most places, it's enough to gather around a table for a dinner, some wine, and a game of cards or tombola (by the way, there is no such thing as the "urn of fate" at Christmas).

Caroling is a tradition in some parts of Italy, certainly, mostly in the North, and many people go to midnight Mass on the night of Christmas in towns big and small (and many don't). But when it comes to music, nothing makes one think of Christmas in Italy as much as the bagpipers, the zampognari, who gather with their costumes and sheepskins to play in squares and streets and homes, particularly in the North, but also in Rome and the mountains in Abruzzo and Molise.

Food and More Food

Of course, gathering to eat is the main communal way of celebrating and sharing the spirit of Christmas.

Gastronomical traditions vary from town to town, region to region, and north to south. For Christmas Eve, for those who do not fast, the main tradition, of course, is fish, though in Piemonte and other mountainous places, people who want to observe some kind of dietary sacrifice have a vegetarian Christmas Eve.

For Christmas Day the menu runs regionally, and with enormous diversity, with traditional dishes ranging from tortellini or natalini in brodo (or the local version of tortellini) to lasagna (or both); from baccalà (cod) to anguilla (eel), and from cappone (capon) to bollito (boiled meats) to abbacchio (lamb).

For dessert, one must have cookies of various kinds, cavallucci and ricciarelli, frittelle or strufoli (fried donuts), pandoro or panettone, torrone or panforte, fried fruit, and, of course, grappa.

If you want to try to imitate a generous Italian Christmas dinner tradition, make sure that at your table you have extra bread for the poor and some grass and grains for the animals of the world.

Buon Natale e tanti auguri!