Steeped in history, Italy is a country which proudly and enthusiastically preserves its traditions, while also welcomes modern twists and touches. This unique fusion makes for a Christmas celebration like no other in the world, and the festivities that take place in the county may surprise and please those who haven’t visited at this time of year before.
Traditionalists in the UK will tell you that Christmas decorations should go up 12 days before the big day, although it’s often much sooner than that and an increasing number of people decide to do it when it best suits them. In Italy, the frequently asked question of ‘when should we decorate?’ is much clearer, and you can expect the streets of towns and villages, and houses putting up their festive decorations on December the 8th; the day known as Immaculate Conception. The Catholic teaching is that Mary, mother of Christ, was conceived without sin, which is why people often refer to her as ‘full of grace’.
Presepi is another Italian tradition, and one which would be difficult to miss. Across the country, many churches, public buildings and homes display a hand-crafted presepi (nativity scene), with Mary, baby Jesus and the three wise men found in a stable or cave. Considered a work of art, many of the ornate scenes are still made in the traditional way, and it’s in Naples, southern Italy, that the artisan skill is still practised.
Feast of Seven Fishes
In preparation for the feast on the big day, Italians traditionally don’t eat meat on Christmas Eve. It is said that this is to prepare their bodies for the indulgent day ahead and instead, fish takes the centre stage for their dishes. The day is known as the feast of seven fishes, and as the name suggests, it’s no less filling! Each family is likely to have their own variation of what they eat, with some eating up to 12 dishes, and others sticking to a one-pot fish stew. You can expect the restaurants in Italy serving a special menu for the day, with, as you guessed, fish featuring throughout.
After their fish dinners, many Italians head to their local church for midnight Mass, whether they’re regular attendees of the church or not. One of the most famed and well-attended of these across the country is held at St Peter’s Square in Rome. The Pope leads the ceremony from the basilica balcony and gives his blessings. The mass attracts thousands of visitors and is one of the biggest events in the city’s calendars but if you’re not lucky enough to get a ticket, then you can catch it on the television.
At midnight, the ringing of bells is heard far and wide across Italy, as the churches celebrate the birth of baby Jesus. Whether you’re in the remote parts of the country or a city centre, this historic celebration is a poignant way to begin your festivities!
What is often a surprise for people visiting Italy over Christmas is the presence and sound of bagpipes. It may not be the first instrument that comes to mind when you consider the place and time, but as you explore different piazzas and towns, you’ll hear their beautiful melodies. The sounds have been adapted from hill songs, which were once played by shepherds coming from their homes in the mountains.
Long before the introduction of Father Christmas, Italian children have been anticipating the arrival a delivery from La Befana. The legend is that a broomstick-riding witch leaves sweets and chocolates for the good children and coal for the bad. The Christmas witch is expected on the 6th of January, which is the religious day of Epiphany. It commemorates the 12th day of Christmas and the arrival of the three Wise Men who bore gifts for baby Jesus. It is said that La Befana turned down the invitation from the three wise men to join them on their journey to the birth of Christ. She then later regretted her choice, packed a bag full of gifts and set out to find them with no success, so instead, she left them for other children.
Cenone – The Big Dinner
When Christmas Day arrives, much like the rest of the world, family and delicious food are at the heart of the festivities. However, unlike the UK, where an elaborate roast dinner is eaten at almost every house celebrating, the meals differ depending on where in Italy you are, although pasta, fresh vegetables and oils are of course on the menu – washed down with a delicious local wine!
Will you be heading to Italy this Christmas? We’ve got a stunning range of luxury holiday villas, Italy, which will make the perfect base for your winter exploration!
Have we missed any of your favourite Italian Christmas traditions? We’d love to hear about the quirks or the country, or those a little more unusual! Get in touch with us via our social media channels.
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