Celebrating an Italian Christmas

Christmas remains a deeply traditional event in Italy, writes Matteo Ciofi

Despite the economic crisis, mounting problems and the loss of some traditions, Christmas is still the most important celebration in Italy. It is a time for families to be reunited, to spend time together and, at least for a while, leave worries behind.

Italy remains a deeply Catholic country where traditional ways are still valued. Preparations for December 25 usually start in mid-November. Illuminations are lit, shop windows transformed and decorations visible not only in the cite centres, but also in the suburbs, a magical way to ease the winter gloom into the first week in January.

At the same time it is impossible to negate the fact that in the last 20 years or so, Christmas has become increasingly commercial in Italy. While the economic crisis has seen people try to cut back on spending, Christmas is still Christmas and in the days leading up to the feast day the main shopping areas are thronged with people. Toys for children and food for the festive meals remain the goals of most Italian shoppers at this time of year.

December 8, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, is the favourited day to erect the Christmas tree and the traditional nativity scene (Presepe). Known in Italy as the Virgin Mary’s Day, it is a time to decorate the tree, a symbol of life, whether it be real or artificial. The nativity scene is placed next to the Christmas tree, but, for some at least, it is a tradition that is less common in Italian homes. Usually around the tree are placed the presents that will be opened between Christmas Eve and the following morning.

On December 24, it is traditional for families to celebrate together during the evening waiting for midnight. The Italian name is ‘Vigilia’ a word which comes from the Latin and means to watch or wakefulness. This is the first important ‘food appointment’ and the menu is absolutely based around fish. The starter, first course and second course all consist of fish, meat is not eaten according to religious tradition that sees abstinence as a vital part of the vigil.


Cake is an important part of the celebration. The classic desserts are the Pandoro and the Panettone. The Pandoro is a yeast bread hailing from Verona. It is usually served dusted with vanilla-scented icing sugar made to resemble the snowy peaks of the Italian Alps during Christmas. The Panettone is a bread loaf with a dome shape. Originally from Milan, it contains candied orange, lime, and lemon zest, as well as raisins, which are added dry and not soaked. Another classic Christmas sweet is Torrone, it is a confection, typically made of honey, sugar, chocolate and egg white, with toasted almonds or other nuts, usually shaped into either a rectangular tablet or a round cake.

Before midnight, children patiently await ‘Babbo Natale’ (Santa Claus) to receive gifts in the hope that he will bring them the presents they asked for in the letter sent to him a few weeks earlier. It is  the last event before going to Midnight Mass.

So much of the Italian Christmas revolves around food, and the following day, Christmas lunch is radically different than the Christmas Eve feast as meat takes centre-stage. After the starter, usually lasagne or risotto is eaten with ragu or another type of meat. The main course is always based on beef, chicken, rib roast or stew.

St Stephen’s Day

St Stephen’s Day has been a holiday in Italy since 1947, but it is not universally celebrated, being particularly observed in the south of Italy. December 26 is a day to eat something lighter like boiled meat, after two days of bingeing.

But Christmas is not just about the giving and receiving of gifts and food. It is an occasion to enjoy time with family. A particular feature of a traditional Italian Christmas are the games that families play. Playing cards and tombola are the classic ones and add to the authentic Christmas atmosphere.

New Year’s Eve

After five days of rest and relaxation, New Year’s Eve is another important event. It doesn’t have a religious element, but is widely-celebrated in Italy and usually with family and friends. Restaurants, discos and night clubs are traditional places for young people to enjoy the last night of the year waiting the new one.

Despite the cold weather there is also the opportunity to celebrate this event in one of the many Italian squares. Concerts, performances and shows happen in all the major city centres, which is a cheap alternative to long and expensive dinners in restaurants. As usual, food plays an important role. One of the most classical features of New Year’s  Eve food is the Cotechino, a sort of large cooked pork sausage, which is served with lentils after midnight.

New Year’s Day

Predictably, New Year’s Day is celebrated with another important lunch, usually at home with family. There is no particular tradition for the food, but it is another occasion to spend time together. This is the penultimate date before the last traditional moment of Christmas time: Epifania on January 6 is an important feast day. During the days before this celebration, piazzas throng with local markets mostly specialising in selling sweets. Epiphany is really a celebration for children, it differs from Christmas in that the gifts centre around sweets. Tradition holds that Befana, an old woman, delivers gifts down the chimney on the eve of Epiphany, January 5.

This is the end of Christmas celebrations, particularly for children who usually go back to school the following day after two weeks’ holidays. At the same time, it is the moment to dismantle Christmas trees and the nativity scene, to be placed carefully in boxes awaiting the next occasion, the next magical Christmas for which it is necessary only to wait 352 days.