Italy, Christmas in

Italy, Christmas in

Italians favor the Nativity scene above all other Christmas decorations. As Christmas approaches, they appear in churches, homes, shops, and public places of all kinds. These images of the Holy Family illustrate two important themes in Italian Christmas celebrations: religious observance and family togetherness.

Christmas Markets

As the Christmas season draws near, families began to frequent the Christmas markets that spring up in cities and towns across Italy. Here they find all manner of Christmas merchandise, including sweets and other foods, flowers, Christmas decorations, clothes, toys, and more. Balloon sellers, musicians, and other entertainers amuse shoppers as they wander through the stalls.

Pre-Christmas Celebrations and Observances

Along Italy's Adriatic coast many people celebrate St. Nicholas's Day on December 6. Religious processions are held and adults give sweets to children. The remains of this fourth-century saint now rest in the cathedral in Bari, Italy (see also St. Nicholas). Sicilians celebrate St. Lucy's Day on December 13. Children leave their shoes outdoors hoping that the saint will fill them with treats during the night.

In some Italian cities, such as Rome, the unlikely sound of bagpipes announces that Christmas is near. Following an old custom, shepherds from the surrounding mountainous areas visit the cities with their bagpipes around mid-December. Called zampognari, they make music in the markets, in front of churches, and alongside Nativity scenes. In the past they would sometimes go door to door, playing in front of the family's Nativity scene in exchange for tips.

Between December 16 and December 24 many Italians participate in Christmas novenas, special prayer services held on nine consecutive days. The novenas end with Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.

Nativity Scenes and Ceppos

Many writers believe that St. Francis (c. 1181-1226), born in Assisi, Italy, created the first Nativity scene. According to legend, he staged a living Nativity scene in 1224 in a cave near the Italian village of Greccio. Francis hoped that the scene would impress viewers with the wonder of Christ's birth. The custom quickly caught on. Today, Italians still cherish their Nativity scenes. Churches and homes throughout Italy display these scenes in the weeks before Christmas. In some Italian villages, people create living Nativity scenes on Christmas Eve. Costumed villagers and visitors make a pilgrimage to the life-sized stable, where a living Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus await them. Nativity scenes are so popular in Italy that they may even be found in gas stations, city squares, airports, post offices, railway stations, and shop windows. Italians place the baby Jesus figurine in his crib on Christmas Eve. The Three Kings, or Magi, often do not reach the manger until Epiphany.

Although the Nativity scene is the focus of home Christmas decorations in Italy, many families also construct a ceppo, or Christmas pyramid. Ceppo means "log" in Italian, and some researchers believe that it acquired that name because it replaced the once-popular Yule log. This pyramidal arrangement of shelves may be used to display Christmas symbols, sweets, cards, candles, and small gifts.

Christmas Eve

Many Italians begin Christmas Eve with a sumptuous meal. The meal is all the more satisfying for those who follow the Roman Catholic custom of fasting on Christmas Eve. Traditionally, the Christmas Eve meal is meatless, although many delicious seafood, grain, and vegetable courses may be served. Eel is a favorite main course for this meal. As midnight draws near, many Italians leaves their homes to attend Midnight Mass. One lucky group will be able to attend mass at St. Peter's Church in the Vatican, where the pope himself conducts the service. Television stations all over the world broadcast this service live from the Vatican.

Christmas Day

Italians usually spend Christmas Day enjoying the company of their families. The Italians eat Christmas dinner at midday on December 25. In Italy the menu varies from region to region. Both roast turkey and ham are popular main courses, and a bowl of lentils with sausage is often served as a side dish. In addition, many Italians serve panettone, a sweet Christmas bread originally from Milan, as a Christmas dessert (see also Christmas Cake). Amaretti, almond cookies, cannoli, tubes of pastry filled with sweetened ricotta cheese and candied fruit, and strufoli, fried dough balls, often appear on the dessert table. Sometimes children write letters to their parents, which they place next to their father's plate. The letters usually offer an apology for past misbehavior and a promise of better behavior to come. The letters also provide the children an opportunity to show off their handwriting.

New Year

Italian folklore teaches that the first person one encounters after midnight on New Year's Eve determines one's luck for the year to come (see also Firstfooting). The luckiest person to encounter is a young, healthy man. Meeting a priest means you will attend a funeral, perhaps your own, whereas meeting a child means you may die young. If the first person you encounter is a woman, you will have bad luck in the coming year.


La Befana, the traditional Italian gift bringer, arrives on January 6, Epiphany. Many children write letters to La Befana in the weeks preceding Epiphany, describing the kind of gifts they would like to receive (see also Children's Letters). On Epiphany Eve they leave their stockings by the fire, and the next morning they find them filled with presents. Many young people celebrate Epiphany by gathering in the streets and welcoming Epiphany and La Befana with horn blasts and other forms of noisemaking. In some parts of Italy Santa Claus now competes with La Befana for the affections of Italian children.

In some Italian cities people give gifts to traffic policemen on Epiphany. As the day wears on, mounds of presents, such as fruit baskets, wine, and food, pile up around the stands from which they direct traffic. This practical custom probably offers those who practice it the hope that small traffic infractions will be ignored in the coming year.

Further Reading

Del Re, Gerard, and Patricia Del Re. The Christmas Almanack. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1979. Ross, Corinne. Christmas in Italy. Chicago: World Book-Childcraft International, 1979. Spicer, Dorothy Gladys. The Book of Festivals. 1937. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990.
Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2003