6 Italian Christmas Traditions
Christmas is a particular time of the year, and each country has its own unique Christmas traditions. Italy, including the Via Francigena and St Francis Way regions, is home to a range of Christmas events, food and practices that make it unique. To help you celebrate Christmas like an Italian, we’ve picked six of our favourite Italian Christmas traditions to help you say, Buon Natale!
1. Christmas Markets
Nothing quite says Christmas like the spectacular festive markets in Europe in winter (mulled wine, anyone?). From November until Christmas Day, many Italian towns and cities host Christmas markets that delight young and old alike.
Florence, on the St Francis Way, and Piazza Navona in Rome are home to some of the biggest and most famous Christmas markets in Italy. As well as seasonal food, markets are known for their crafts and handmade products. With an abundance of cheer, markets are a great place to find unique gifts for family and friends (I may be partial to a handmade Christmas decoration or two).
2. Christmas Eve
Christmas Eve is when the central family Christmas dinner takes place in Italy. It’s called Cenone (literally translating to ‘The Big Dinner’!), and it tends to be a meat-free event, with fish generally being the main dish. At midnight, it’s time to open the Christmas presents. If you are in Rome, the traditional Christmas Eve Mass occurs at St Peter’s Basilica around 10 pm.
3. Nativity Cribs
One of the Italian Christmas traditions you might not be aware of is the Christmas nativity. From Christmas Eve until Epiphany on January 6th, you will come across many nativity cribs. You will likely even stumble upon some living nativity plays across the country.
These nativity cribs are called Presepi, and did you know that it’s believed that St. Francis himself created the first-ever crib? The crib is an essential feature of Christmas celebrations and the Christmas story in many catholic countries like Italy.
4. Befana The Witch
In addition to their Christmas gifts, children in some parts of Italy, including Rome, get sweets and treats from a friendly witch named Befana.
On the night of 5th January, the eve of Epiphany Day, Befana travels all around Italy on her broomstick to fill your stockings with sweets and gifts, only if you have been good all year. If you haven’t been so good, she will likely find you still, but only to leave a few lumps of coal instead.
So if you are on the Via Francigena in Italy at Christmas time, don’t forget to leave your stockings by the Christmas tree and a small glass of wine and some food for the Buona Befana on the eve of the Epiphany. Like Santa, Befana is difficult to spot, but according to legend, she may appear at a window in Piazza Navona in Rome on Epiphany Day.
If you make it to Rome around those dates, it is well worth going to the Piazza to have a look. Fornovo di Taro, in Parma on the Via Francigena, hosts an annual festival dedicated to Befana on the 5th and 6th of January. In the meantime, here’s a little poem about Befana the witch:
La Befana vien di notte (The Befana comes by night)
Con le scarpe tutte rotte (With her shoes all tattered and torn)
Col vestito alla Romana (She comes dressed in the Roman way)
Viva, Viva La Befana! (Long life to the Befana!)
Italy makes some delicious desserts; they do! Sweetbreads like Panettone and Pandoro are classic Italian Christmas treats you shouldn’t miss if you are in Italy at this time of the year.
You should make it your business to seek them out! Nut-based Torrone is another must-taste of the season. Grab a cup of coffee and a slice of cake and just enjoy the winter!
6. The World’s Biggest Christmas Tree
Did you know that the world’s giant Christmas tree can be found in the town of Gubbio on the St. Francis Way? Well, believe it! It was back in 1981 when the vast Christmas tree was first installed on Mount Ingino overlooking the city of Gubbio.
The tree was initially created to honour Saint Ubaldo, patron saint of the city. Gubbio’s Christmas tree is over 650-meters high and has over 300 lights. In 1991, the Gubbio Christmas tree entered the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s giant Christmas tree.
In Italian, Gubbio’s Christmas tree, also called ‘L’Albero di Natale più grande del mondo’, is switched on on December 7th each year and stays lighting until January 6th.
We hope you’ve enjoyed reading about some of our favourite Italian Christmas traditions, and we’d like to wish you a Buon Natale! How do you celebrate Christmas? Let us know about some of your favourite Christmas traditions!
To keep the festive spirit alive, read the Spanish version of this article which looks at 6 Christmas traditions on the Camino de Santiago. Check out our favourite Christmas recipes.
If you’ve left your Christmas shopping a bit too late this year, don’t forget that you can give the gift of the Camino with one of our Camino Christmas Vouchers. If you’ve any questions or want to book your own Camino de Santiago adventure, please don’t hesitate to contact us.
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!