8 Christmas Customs that You'll Only Find in Italy

by Christopher Atwood



Christmas in Italy is as diverse as the country itself. In Italy, Christmas runs from December 8th (the Feast of the Immaculate Conception) to January 6th (the Epiphany). It's a season when Italians spend time with their families, shop at outdoor markets and nibble on panettone.

Below, you'll find some of the curious customs behind Italians' Christmas celebrations -- including flying donkeys and generous witches!

Free Guide: Italy in Winter

8. MERCATINI DI NATALE

Chestnuts roast on a fire. Torrone tempts your tastebuds. Strings of lights blink overhead. Where are you? In mercatino di Natale or one of Italy's Christmas markets. Throughout November and December, towns big and small are home to outdoor holiday bazaars -- selling tempting treats like candied nuts, carved ornaments, and local toys.

image

7. LA BEFANA 

Italian kids in many areas eagerly await the arrival of La Befana. The Befana is an old woman, riding a broom, who delivers gifts. Legend has it that she lost her way following the Three Wise Men and has been handing out presents ever since. She's Italy's version of the good witch, delivering sweets and gifts to well-behaved children. Naughty kids, on the other hand, can expect lumps of coal left in their stockings.

image

6. LIVING NATIVITY 

On the island of Sicily, Christmas comes to life - quite literally - with the presepi viventi or Living Nativity. Locals reenact the biblical nativity scene - including mooing and braying livestock. Donning traditional Sicilian clothing, residents dress up as Mary, Joseph, the Three Wise Men, Shepherds and the Angels. It's said that St. Francis of Assisi founded the tradition of living nativities in 1223. Since then, the custom has spread across Italy.

Presepe_Vivente

5. HAND-CARVED "PRESEPI" IN NAPLES

Throughout Italy's South, presepi or manger scenes rule the Christmas season. In the city of Naples, the Via San Gregorio Armeno is lined with hand-crafted creches. Made painstakingly by artisans, the figurines represent traditional village life in Southern Italy. Pedestrians walk up and down the "Christmas alley" here, popping into shops to see craftsmen at work on manger scenes. Over 500,000 visitors tour this street each year.

image

4. ST. LUCY & HER FLYING DONKEY

In some Northern Italian areas, especially in parts of Lombardy and the Veneto, St. Lucy is said to bring gifts each December 13th. Accompanied by her faithful flying donkey, St. Lucy rewards good children and gives coal to the cattivi (naughty) kids. To celebrate her arrival, children often leave a carrot out for her donkey and coffee for St. Lucy. In the city of Verona, the townspeople erect a huge Christmas market in honor of Santa Lucia

image
 
3. CHRISTMAS AT THE VATICAN
 
Christmas in Italy isn't just folk customs and mounds of food -- for many Italians, it's a pious celebration.  Vatican City in Rome boasts numerous Christmas-themed religious events and attractions  -- including the papal midnight mass (Christmas Eve) and a giant fir tree hoisted high in St. Peters Square.  Typically, the tree is accompanied by a giant nativity scene -- designed by a cohort of international artists.
 
Vatican_Christmas
 
2. VENICE'S CHARMING CHRISTMAS VILLAGE
 
Each December, one of Venice's most scenic squares -- Campo Santo Stefano -- morphs into a magical Christmas village.  Strolling this stone piazza, you'll zigzag through a maze of holiday-themed stalls and vendors -- including artisans selling Venetian handicrafts. Food-loving travelers can relish festive treats like Venetian panettone or chewy torrone (nougat).
 
Venice_Winter
 
1. GUBBIO'S GIGANTIC CHRISTMAS TREE
 
Want to feel in awe of Christmas? You'll need to visit Umbria's hillside gem of Gubbio then.  Here, you can go straight to Monte Ingino -- the rocky slope overlooking Gubbio.  On its slope, over 460 lights are strung together to evoke the "world's largest Christmas tree."  In 2017, the tree "was lit" from outer space by the Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli.  The tree design illuminates over 2,133 feet of the mountain side!
 
Christmas_Gubbio
 

Christmas in Italy is unlike any other season.  To read more about Italian Christmas traditions, check out our article "3 Days of Christmas in Italy's Alps." 

Download our free guide to Italy's wondrous winter:

Free Guide: Italy in Winter

Share this blog post with your friends: Email Facebook Twitter Pinterest
request a quote

Testimonials!

Recent Posts