As you can probably imagine, the Christmas holidays are a big deal in Italy, where the confluence of its rich culinary culture and longstanding religious traditions creates a festive season that is truly special.
In this week’s post, we’re highlighting some of the Italian Christmas traditions that you might find a bit surprising.
Christmas Traditions in Italy: Things That Might Surprise You
Christmas Eve in Italy — la Vigilia — is just as important as Christmas Day, and a lavish dinner featuring seafood is the main event of the evening. This tradition has its roots in Catholicism, where no meat is to be eaten before a holy day in order to purify the body in advance of the sacred celebration.
Just how purifying this meal actually is can be called into question, however, seeing as there are usually multiple courses and often a variety of decadent shellfish. Of course, no Christmas Eve dinner would be complete without dessert, and this is when panettone takes center stage at the Italian table.
Panettone is a delectable, sweet, leavened bread, traditionally studded with candied peel and raisins. If you’ve never seen a panettone before, think of a giant, muffin-shaped brioche weighing about 2 pounds (although they do come in other sizes, as well as a variety of flavours).
During the Christmas holiday season in Italy — which runs from December 8 (the feast of the Immaculate Conception) until January 6 (Epiphany) — streets are decorated with lights and giant Christmas trees illuminate the piazzas, as you would expect.
What’s unique about Italy at Christmas time is the abundance of nativity scenes, called presepi in Italian. You’ll find them everywhere: in churches, certainly, but also in public areas, shops, cafés, and homes. The styles range from classic to modern, often with contemporary characters such as pizza makers, politicians, and sports heroes being added to the scene.
Naples is famous for its nativity scenes and figurines, with a whole street being dedicated to their artisan production: Via San Gregorio.
GAMES, GIFTS & SANTA
Italians love to play cards, and the already lively Christmas gatherings in Italy get even more spirited when the cards come out, especially since Italians typically play for money. Another popular game is Tombola, which is basically the Italian version of bingo (also played for money).
It’s common in Italy to open gifts on Christmas Eve, after the big dinner or at midnight (well, the Christmas Eve feast in Italy usually carries on til midnight, or beyond.)
In Italy, Santa Claus is called Babbo Natale, which translates as “Father Christmas.” The word “babbo” means “dad” in Italian but its use is pretty regional; if you hear kids calling their dad “babbo” it probably means you are in Tuscany.
The happiest of holidays from all of us at DriverInRome!
DriverInRome would be pleased to accompany you around Italy with a private car and driver, or arrange a licensed guide just for your group. Please contact us regarding popular or custom itineraries.