Christmas in Italy: All you need to know

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I’m sure you’re all curious about Christmas in Italy: How is Christmas celebrated in Italy? What do we Italians usually eat at Christmas?

Christmas at home

I come from a peculiar family. My mother hated to cook, and hated also to entertain guests, so we were very different from the Italian family cliché. Only once a year, for Christmas (that we actually celebrate on Christmas Eve), she and my father would set up a fancy dinner. Only for us, of course, which means them, me, my brothers and their fiancées or wives. Then came Filippo, my nephew, and later also Matteo, my husband.

So it was really a special evening for us all and I waited for it, daydreaming about the scrumptious menu, the decorations and the presents, of course. Now that my mother is no longer able to take care of it, my older brother and my sister-in-law carry on the tradition. Ah! Don’t worry, we’re not alone at Christmas, we have the in-laws lunch!

Santo Stefano lunch

But around Christmas, every year there’s another event I love dearly. It is not related to my family, but to that of my best friend Stefano. On his name-day (December 26th) his mother, Lina, prepares every year a luncheon consisting of much much more stuff than we usually have at Christmas at my parents:

  • a lot of antipasti that would suffice to fully satiate us,
  • two primi piatti (pasta based dishes),
  • two secondi piatti (meat based dishes) with contorni (side dishes),
  • panettone and a ton of typical Apulian Christmas sweets.

Plus of course Stefano’s favourite dessert, tiramisù. Tiramisù is compulsory, even if we’re exploding. And she has not a dishwasher and doesn’t want one. I don’t know how she manages!

Christmas in Italy: All you need to know

How to say Merry Christmas

First things first, how to say Merry Christmas in Italian… and, since we’re at it, also Happy New Year. Merry Christmas is Buon Natale [bwohn nah-TAH-leh], while Happy New Year is Buon Anno Nuovo [bwohn AHN-noh NWOH-voh], but we normally say just Buon Anno!
You could also see greeting cards with Felice Natale or Felice Anno Nuovo, but I never said it. I only saw it written. So better to learn just Buon. As for Happy Holidays, in Italian we say Buone Feste! [BWOH-neh FEH-steh]

Natale etymology

Natale derives from the Latin word natalis and it means birth, referring to Christ’s birth. Christ in Italian is Cristo [CREE-stoh] or Gesù [jeh-SOO] Cristo. Baby Jesus is bambino Gesù, often bambin [bahm-BEEN].

Presepe

The truly Italian Christmas tradition is the presepe [preh-SEH-peh]. According to tradition, the first presepe ever was set up by Saint Francis in 1223 in the small hamlet of Greccio, Umbria. But it seems that this tradition was already a thing in Napoli around the year 1000. In fact, the presepi Napoletani are the most famous of all. Each year the sarcastic artisans of the city build statues inspired by politics, news and celebrities. So, among the classical shepherds, sheeps, madonnas, etc, you can find the statuetta or statuina (little statue) of Pope Francis, Fidel Castro, Angela Merkel, Matteo Renzi.

Presepe (wikimedia)
Presepe (wikimedia)

Christmas decorations

We start decorating by tradition on December 8th, day of the Immaculate Conception. Honesly I do not follow this tradition. Every year I decorate my house when I feel like it. Three years ago I wanted to live a Christmas atmosphere earlier and I set all up on November 25. Since the two girls who lived next door moved 2 years ago, I kind of lost a bit of Christmas joy and I delayed the decorations setting, and I also decreased their amount. :'( I used to decorate the whole hallway for them, but I no longer do it. Especially since there are the rude students next to me now. Grrrrrrrrr.

On December 8 also cities decorations are set up: usually a big Christmas tree in the main square (in Padova in front of the Town Hall entrance), street illuminations here called luminarie and in recent years also the Christmas markets, that once was only a northern (especially in Trentino Alto Adige) tradition.

Christmas tree

L’albero di Natale [ahl-BEH-roh] was “imported” from the Nordic traditions. But is very beloved, so that nowadays is more popular than the presepe. Since I was a kid I’ve always preferred the albero. It seemed more cheerful.

Zampognari

Men dressed as shepherds, playing Christmas music with the bagpipes, are a tradition related to the ancient tanshumance. This tradition is slowly disappearing. I’m sad, cause I love bagpipes. In my area there are no zampognari, but people singing la chiara stella (clear star). They are devotees who wander from house to house singing Christmas songs and asking for an offering for the local church. But since I never attended the church that much, so I don’t know if this tradition is still going on.

Who brings the gifts?

Santa Claus is called Babbo Natale [BAHB-boh], i.e. father Christmas (babbo is used mostly in the centre – south of Italy. In the north we normally say papà, but in case of Babbo Natale is babbo also for us). In some areas of Italy though, according to tradition, it is not Santa who brings the gifts, but Gesù Bambino or Santa Lucia (for example in Verona, Cremona, Brescia, Bergamo). Then, later, on the 6th of January comes the Befana.

Learn more about Befana here

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Befana bonfire, Padova
Befana bonfire, Padova

Christmas in Italy – When do we celebrate it?

The majority of people celebrate it precisely on Christmas at lunch. But there are some families (like mine) that celebrate it on the Christmas Eve. In my family this custom is due to the fact that on Christmas day we once went to my grandmother’s house. So the day before only my parents, my brothers and I had a intimate Christmas dinner. The next day at grandma’s with my aunts and uncles. I know for sure that many families celebrate both.

The 24th dinner is called Cenone della Vigilia. It should not include meat, but fish and vegetables dishes. For those who are believers there’s the habit of going at the midnight mass after dinner. As a kid I used to open my presents right after dinner. But my school friends were shocked by this, since they had to wait until Christmas morning. Then they had Christmas lunch, il pranzo di Natale.

Tombola

When I was a kid, at Christmas in our home village we used to play tombola, a traditional game similar to bingo. With very cheap prizes though.

Piatti di Natale

The most common Christmas dishes in Veneto would be capon broth, risotto with radicchio, gnocchi or bigoli with duck sauce, codfish and polenta, boiled beef with horseradish sauce and mashed potatoes. But to be honest I almost never had these dishes at Christmas. We adopt dishes from other regions, like lasagne and tortellini, or we have dishes that are common among many different areas (roast meat, chicken, duck). This year we’ll have radicchio lasagne and roast veal with potatoes. Surely there will be sopressa (a local aged salami) for starter and different vegetables side dishes.

Christmas  in Italy – desserts

The classic dilemma is between Panettone and Pandoro lovers.

Panettone, originally from Milan, is a sweet bread loaf with candied fruits and raisins. Usually hated by kids, who despise the candied fruits, it is now available in many variants (only with raisins, with chocolate chips, with other fruits, with cream fillings).

Pandoro (meaning golden bread) is from Verona. It is sweeter and buttery, by tradition with no fillings (but you can now find it with creams and other variations). For the record, I prefer the pandoro.

Other sweet treats are torrone and mandorlato. Both similar to nougat and including more or less the same ingredients (egg whites, honey, sugar and almonds or hazelnuts or pistachios), they differ in preparation and tradition. Torrone can be soft or hard, mandorlato is only hard. They are both good in my opinion, but I prefer mandorlato, which is also typical of my region, the Veneto, especially that of Cologna Veneta.

In the south of Italy you can find other kinds of sweets. I am familiar with the cartellate from Puglia, since my best friend’s mother prepares them every winter.

Del Pandoro non si butta via niente

Me with a pandoro mask
Me with a pandoro mask

In Italy there’s the saying “del maiale non si butta via niente”, literally “of the pig nothing goes to waste”. I think I hear a similar saying “evertything but the oink”. In this case I used it for the Pandoro. Because there’s another Italian tradition related to Pandoro and Panettone, the funniest one for kids: to build masks with the boxes. You should simply make two holes for the eyes and one for the nose. Many little Dart Vaders, Robots or whatever. I loved it! In fact I made it again to show you (but I got the eyes holes wrong). 😀

Christmas in Italy saying

The most popular Christmas saying is

Natale con i tuoi, Pasqua con chi vuoi (Christmas with your family, Easter with whomever you want). 

Every year I find myself fantasizing about the trip I will do at Easter, free from the family “burden” but then, every year, my husband can’t resist the sad look on his parents’ eyes and we end up eating like crazy with our crazy relatives. Again. 


What about your Christmas traditions?