Christmas in Italy from the tree day to La Befana. Discover all the Italian Christmas traditions, the food, and the fun facts.
when is Christmas in Italy
Natale, Christmas in Italy, begins early in December. December 8th is the official Christmas tree day, so we are supposed to put it up, decorate it, and lighten it up. There are a few exceptions though… (read more about the Christmas tree here)
In Taranto, Puglia, for example, celebrations begin on Santa Cecilia, on November 22nd. Which is also the frying day: every family makes and fries huge amounts of “pettole”, leavened dough balls, deep-fried and served covered in sugar, or sprinkled with salt. You can find the recipe on the Green Issue of Simposio.
how long is Christmas time in Italy
Christmas in Italy lasts approximately 3 weeks, 4 weeks if you consider the last week, the one between New Year’s Eve and La Befana, on January 6th. This doesn’t mean we have such a long break: official days off are the 8th, the 25ft, and the 26th of December. Plus January 1st and 6th. A few weeks before Christmas, everyone makes plans and takes extra vacation days, as strategically as they can, to be home as long as possible. Children instead are on vacation for two weeks: from Christmas day to January 6th.
Shop owners, poor them, work most of the time and add Sundays to their already cluttered schedule.
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who celebrates Christmas in Italy
Everyone celebrates Christmas in Italy. Not everyone is religious, or observant, but still, we all assume it’s an excellent excuse to celebrate and be merry. We accept (and, in many cases, secretly love) traditions and family reunions. Of course, I have met a few Grinches in my life, but they’re usually sad people with big issues.
Children are the ones that enjoy the season the most and are usually the reason why even Grinches make up a smile (or drink enough to get through the day). Sometimes even dressing up as Santa to deliver gifts at midnight. Although tradition says, it is baby Jesus who delivers presents, while children are sleeping. In that case, gifts magically appear on the 25ft morning.
Italian Christmas decorations
Italian Christmas decorations include door wreaths and street (and window) lights, like in many other places in the world. But we also have local and traditional decorations like the Presepe and the Ceppo.
Actually, the Presepe (Crib) was the only Christmas decoration in the past, being Christmas a religious celebration. While the Ceppo (or Yule log) is still a traditional decoration, only with pagan origins (a reminiscence of Northern European cultures).
Christmas weather in Italy
Christmas weather in Italy is more or less cold but a little warmer in the South. Let’s say everyone has to wear at least a sweater. Sometimes we get videos of people in Sicily taking a bath at the beach on the 25ft… but it’s just a few of them, and it’s to make us envious.
Northern Italy is colder, of course. They get snow for Christmas every now and then (mountain areas get it quite often), lucky, lucky people!
In Rome and central Italy, it snowed on Christmas maybe twice since I was born.
how Italians celebrate Christmas
All the period before Christmas Eve is dedicated to decorating, gift purchasing, and dinners with friends.
Christmas, in Italy, is a good excuse to go out with old friends, new friends, calcetto (soccer) friends, yoga friends, etc. An occasion to meet, eat, exchange a little present, and toast while exclaiming “Buon Natale!” (merry Christmas in Italian).
When the time for Christmas shopping comes, many visit a mall, some take long walks downtown, and some have converted to e-commerce. But some (more an more people lately) stick to the tradition of visiting Christmas markets, in search of handmade and unique gifts, plus as an excuse to have a hot chocolate and a few treats.
Homemade gifts are an addition to actual gifts. Everyone that cooks, bakes or preserves a goodie, shares it with friends, neighbors, and family: a cake, a jam, cookies, torrone, liquors, flavored oils…
If you want to make someone happy, I have a few homemade Christmas gifts recipes for you, here on the blog:
Christmas days & traditions
The Christmas Eve dinner in Italy is usually spent within the family. There’s a big fish banquet for the family and a few intimate friends. Here you can find out more about Christmas Eve foods and traditions.
On the 25ft, after a frugal breakfast (no, just joking, it’s full of Pandoro, Panettone, and other sugary delights), we get ready for a huge lunch (welcoming back meat in the menu). You can read more about Christmas day here.
On the 26th, Boxing Day, we have another big family lunch. Although recently people are giving up this last big feast and they are opting for leftover meals, couch & movies, city walks, day trips or theaters and art exhibitions. The Red & Orange Issue of Simposio features a few traditional recipes for Boxing Day, the ones Roman families used to serve (and some still do).
Playing, that’s what we do.
Italians play cards all the time:
- after the Christmas Eve dinner, while waiting for gifts or the midnight mass;
- after the Christmas day lunch;
- on the 26th, all day long;
- on all the days afterward, until January 6th.
Mostly, we play cards: there are many games, some are traditional, like Mercante in Fiera, some are relatively new, like Salta Cavallo (Jump the Horse), and some have little to do with Christmas, like poker.
We play table games too, mostly tombola (bingo).
Getting ready for the games, a few weeks before the festivities begin, is necessary. We must brush up on the rules, reorder the games cabinet, and save pennies to bet on our “winning horse”!
Besides playing, there’s a lot of chatting (fighting sometimes), a lot of hugs, and kisses, and food.
Italian Christmas food
You’ve probably heard of Pandoro and Panettone, slow leavened sweetbreads, one plain and buttery, the other one buttery as well but stuffed with candied fruits and raisins. You can find them industrial or artisanal, with chocolate chips, with limoncello cream, with manna cream (a Sicilian specialty), with exotics ingredients and improbable matchings.
But they are just the beginning of Christmas desserts. Depending on where you live, the Christmas table will be full of:
- Neapolitan Struffoli– fried dough balls covered with honey;
- Tuscan Panforte and Castagnaccio– sweet flatbreads with nuts and dried fruits;
- Gubana from Friuli – sweet leavened bread stuffed with a nutty cream;
- Cartellate from Puglia – olive oil dough, fried and covered with honey;
- Buccellato from Sicily – dried figs stuffed shortcrust pastry;
- many cookies – more or less the same cookies families bake for the Festa dei Morti (Dead’s Day) – you can find some recipes on the Red & Orange Issue of the Gourmet Mag.
Here on the blog, I have a few traditional Italian Christmas recipes:
- Neapolitan Struffoli;
- Pesce spada alla ghiotta;
- black kale bruschetta;
- stracciatella soup.
and some modern Italian Christmas recipes:
New Year’s Eve in Italy
After the Christmas rush, it’s time for New Year’s Eve celebrations. No family, just friends. Or at least that’s what traditions says… click here to read the complete story.
And click here for a beautiful cheese board for your New Year’s table (it includes grapes for the midnight thing!).
The week after New Year’s Eve is a little strange: Christmas is gone, but you still want to have fun. Therefore, Italians organize “cartate” (playing cards nights) and dinners with friends (the ones you didn’t have time to meet before Christmas).
Besides, there’s all the organization regarding La Befana, on January 6th. La Befana is a witch that fills children stockings with… you can read all about the legend of La Befana and how to make a traditional calza della Befana (Befana stocking) here!
That’s it, January 6th is the last day of Christmas. Unless there’s a weekend attached, everything’s over, it’s time to go back to school, work, and everyday life.
But that doesn’t mean the fun is over forever… in less than a month, it will be time to dress up for Carnevale!
Enjoy Christmas in Italy and all the fun, the love, and the food!