It’s not just the seven fishes.
The Christmas season in Italy shares similarities with its counterpart in America. We both decorate our houses and streets with lights and wreaths. Many attend Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. We both have gift exchanges with family, and the day after Christmas is spent with all the leftovers. In regions of northern Italy, more and more evergreen trees are being brought into homes to be decorated by families.
However, the Italian Christmas season is not as commercialized as it is here. Italian homes don’t receive a ton of catalogs starting in November; they don’t play Christmas music in stores; and mail in January isn’t full of painful credit card bills. Italian children don’t write letters to Santa Claus asking for iPads; they write letters to their parents explaining how much they love them.
Here we share some enduring Italian Christmas traditions.
Before the Holidays, Religious Preparations
The Christmas season in Italy kicks off on December 8 with the Immaculate Conception.
In most towns of Italy, during the Christmas season, you will find the tradition of presepi, elaborate Nativity sets crafted by churches and proudly displayed. Naples has the most famous ones, but elegant examples of manger scenes are common.
Carolers in traditional dress, called zampognari descend from the mountains around Rome and other cities in southern Italy with their instruments to sing songs, similar to the American tradition of caroling door-to-door. The zampognari are famous for bagpipes, but don’t expect any Scottish kilts.
Many Italians do not eat meat on Christmas Eve. Their goal is to purify their bodies in preparation for the arrival of the savior. Even though multiple courses will be served, the intent is to eat light. Many Italian-Americans are familiar with the seven fishes meal that is replicated here on Christmas Eve, where seven different types of seafood are served.
The Twelve Days of Christmas
After the Christmas Eve meal, many Italians head to Midnight Mass, a stirring ritual even for non-Christians to witness. The streets will go quiet in the minutes leading up to midnight. After this mass, the sleepy streets of Italian towns return to bustle, music, celebration and tumult. Some people even go night skiing!
On Christmas Day, the Feast of Natale, the eating begins. No need to eat light now. There will be pasta and roasts and desserts like panettone, a bread with a filling of candied fruit. The meal begins about noon and goes on all day. The next day, everyone gets busy on the leftovers. This day is called Santo Stefano.
The Christmas season in Italy ends on January 6, the 12th day of Christmas, with a day known as the Epiphany.
The family gift exchange does not take place on December 25, but is held over until the Epiphany. The gift-giver isn’t Santa Claus but a kindly old witch named La Befana who rides around on a broomstick. This could be confusing to Americans who associate witches flying on broomsticks with Halloween and Judy Garland.
The Christmas season is when Italy sparkles at its most brilliant. The warm heart of Italy, the exuberance, the generous Italian spirit, are on display for the world to see and experience. Why not go and be relish it all?
Thinking about an off-season trip to Italy, maybe spending the holidays with relatives? Call us at 877-723-0802. Download our free e-book, the Ultimate Guide to Italy, to see where to go.