6 Italian Christmas Traditions
Christmas is a special time of the year and each country has its own unique Christmas traditions. Italy, including the regions of the Via Francigena and St Francis Way, is home to a range of Christmas events, food and traditions that make it special. 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 found throughout Europe in winter (mulled wine anyone?). From the end of November right up 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 festive 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
In Italy, Christmas Eve is when the main family Christmas dinner takes place. 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 happen to be in Rome, the traditional Christmas Eve Mass takes place at St Peter’s Basilica around 10 pm.
3. Nativity Cribs
One of the Italian Christmas traditions you might not be aware of is actually about 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 the first-ever crib was created by St. Francis himself? The crib is an important 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 of course. If you haven’t been so good, it is quite likely she will 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 a difficult one 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 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 really do! Sweetbreads like Panettone and Pandoro are classic Italian Christmas treats that you definitely shouldn’t miss if you are in Italy at this time of the year.
In fact, you should make it your business to seek them out! Nut-based torrone is another must-taste of the season. Basically, 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 biggest 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 huge Christmas tree was first installed on the slopes of Mount Ingino overlooking the city of Gubbio.
The tree was originally 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 largest Christmas tree.
Gubbio’s Christmas tree, also called ‘L’Albero di Natale più grande del mondo’ in Italian, 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, make sure to read the Spanish version of this article which looks at 6 Christmas traditions on the Camino de Santiago. Also, be sure to don your apron and 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 would like to book your own Camino de Santiago adventure, please don’t hesitate to contact us.
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!