Italy’s culture is steeped in tradition and ritual dating back thousands of years.  Not surprisingly, one of the most festive days of the Italian calendar, Christmas has its fair share of exciting traditions.  If you’re lucky enough to be in Italy around the end of December, you’re sure to experience a few of them for yourself.

As Italy is still a heavily religious country, their Christmas celebrations revolve around the Catholic holy days—in fact, the actual celebrations of Christmas start eight days before the 25th of December and last until the Feast of the Epiphany.  While families are starting to exchange gifts on the 25th due to American influence, Babbo Natale (Italy’s version of Father Christmas,) traditionally brings children gifts on the final night of the Christmas season, January 6th.  Masses and special church services are ubiquitous during this time—seasonal prayers such as the Novena are prayed.  Drawing from the mummery traditions of the Middle Ages, children dress up as shepherds and other key figures from the Nativity story and go caroling door to door in exchange for gifts of money.

As with all other aspects of Italian life, food plays a key role in Christmas celebrations.  While fasting is observed for the 24 hours leading up to Christmas, after that comes the Cenone, the traditional Christmas feast.  This feast is strictly vegetarian (fish count as a vegetable here,) but it is presented with the customary verve and creativity expressed in all meals: spaghetti and anchovies plus other types of fish, as well as broccoli, salads, fruits, and a vast number of pastries.  After the Cenone, it is customary to then go to Christmas mass with the family.


Other age-old seasonal customs include the Ceppo, a structure of shelves depicting a manger scene surrounded by small gifts, fruit, and candy.  It is often decorated with candles and colored lights—essentially, it is the Italian version of our Christmas tree.  (Originally, the Ceppo was the Yule log which was burned to determine how long the Christmas celebrations would last.)  The Urn of Fate is another custom, a large bowl from which the paterfamilias removes wrapped gifts for his children on the night of the present exchange.  La Befana is a Christmas witch, Babbo Natale’s female counterpart, who according to legend ran after the three wise men on the night of Christ’s birth with an armful of presents belonging to her dead child.  However, she could not find the stable, so to this day she wanders the world on Christmas, delivering gifts to good children and coal to bad ones.

With so many fascinating customs surrounding Christmas and other festivals, Italy offers enough holiday cheer and surprises to warm the hearts of any number of Grinches and Scrooges.  To get a first-hand experience of the language that inspired these and many other customs, look into one of our different levels of Italian courses.  Or, if you prefer, send us an enquiry.  Happy holidays!