How to Celebrate Christmas like an Italian

If you’re wondering how to celebrate Christmas like an Italian, you’ve come to the right place! Let’s take a look at a comprehensive guide broken down into the most notable days during the holiday period. 

La Festa di San Nicola

6th December

While the official start of Christmas in Italy takes place on 8th December, in some regions, particularly in northern Italy, the celebrations start a couple of days early, with St. Nicholas Day, the day that celebrates the feast day of the patron saint of shepherds. This is when children sit down to write their request letter to St. Nicholas, often hanging a stocking to receive fruits or sweets. It’s common for families to come together and sing Christmas carols in the evening.  

L'Immacolata Concezione / Presepi

8th December

The Catholic holiday, the Celebration of the Immaculate Conception, is the first official day of Christmas in Italy. Given that it’s a national holiday, families decorate wreaths and trees together, and overnight you’ll see a twinkling of fairy lights.  

It’s also the day that all the cities’ main piazzas receive a great Christmas tree in anticipation. Rome boasts some of the most impressive Christmas trees, with one located right in front of St. Peter’s Cathedral within the Vatican City, and another in front of the Colosseum.  

Also, on this day the presepi - nativity scenes - get arranged, not just outside and in churches but in the windows of most Italian households, keeping Baby Jesus away from the crib until his birth, of course. Some depict entire villages, while others just the holy family, and it’s not unusual to spot the odd Italian footballer, for good measure, either!  

Within the home, presepi normally sit on a ceppo, triangular wooden framed shelves that hold both the nativity scene as well as fruit, gifts, candles, and perhaps a star or doll on top. While the nativity scene is found across the world, it is believed that it was St. Francis of Assisi who created the first nativity scene way back in the 13th century. Today, Naples holds the mastery of the presepi, with its many artisans’ hand-making nativity figurines. Within the historic centre lies a pedestrianised street called Via San Gregorio Armeno which is dubbed Christmas Alley, as it’s teeming with presepi, including unlikely Italian Christmas characters, from pizza chefs to bagpipers. 

Festa di Santa Lucia

13th December

The Festival of Saint Lucia, the patron saint of blindness, takes place on the shortest day of the year, and this is a holiday where families light candles and torches in their homes. It’s also a day of feasting with homemade pasta and roast pork loins, as well as a special dessert called cuccìa (which resembles a rice pudding crossed with a trifle).  

Move over Santa! If you are in the north of Italy, such as in the city of Verona, Saint Lucia is the one who brings well-behaved children a gift from her cart, and so on this day families leave out refreshments, and a straw bed for the donkey that she rides.  

Further south, especially in the Sicilian city of Syracuse where Saint Lucia is from, you’ll find a religious procession that takes a sculpture of the saint and 12 huge flower-adorned wooden candelabra through the streets, stopping off at cathedrals along the way before reaching her tomb in Syracuse Cathedral. 


The nine days in the lead up to Christmas Day are known as the Novena, a time believed to be when the Wise Men once journeyed to the birth of baby Jesus. In Italy today, this is both a time of prayer and of performances. Children, dressed as biblical characters, may recite Christmas poems door to door in exchange for sweets, churches open up for hymns and music, and the great theatres put on opera and ballet shows.  

If they haven’t already, Italian children write intricately decorated letters of love and gratitude to their parents. These are then tied up like gifts and hung in the home until Natale (Christmas). 

La Vigilia di Natale

24th December

For Italians, Christmas Eve is the most important day during the festive season. One of the most common activities is for families to attend Midnight Mass together, and church bells ring out across the country. When families leave their church, they make a point to kiss the statue of the baby Jesus.  

For the ultimate Christmas experience, pilgrims travel to Vatican City in Rome to hear the Pope give his sermon at 9:30pm from the basilica or watch him unitedly from huge TV screens in St. Peter’s Square. This is also the time when the Pope adds a baby Jesus to the Vatican’s own life-sized presepe.  

While historically it was believed Jesus or Saint Lucia brought gifts, nowadays most children await the visit of Babbo Natale (Father Christmas) on this holy night.  

Christmas Eve was traditionally a day of fasting, and even today some Italians choose to fast during the day. For their evening feast, it’s common to abstain from meat, choosing to purify themselves with the Festa dei Sette Pesci (Feast of Seven Fish), adopting a meal with seven types of seafood. Depending on where you are you’ll get different dishes, but most feature seafood and green vegetables, such as broccoli, artichoke, and seaweed. In the south, you'll find clams or oysters served with pasta or in a broth, and marinated anchovies. In the northerly regions of Piedmont and Lombardy, it’s typical to enjoy anchovy-laden lasagne. 


25th December

Christmas Day revolves around one thing: the cenone (big dinner), and the main event can spread out over a dozen courses! Understandably, Christmas meals are often planned weeks in advance.  

Dishes vary depending on the region, but usually include an antipasto of cured meats and cheese, frittata, seafood-laden salads, and fresh fish platters.  

You’ll typically find baked lasagne or tortellini in broth, but this also changes depending on the region. Southern regions like Campania and Sardinia feature a lot of fish. The main course is usually roast meat, such as pork, beef, or lamb, that’s served with all the vegetable trimmings. 

Every Italian family tends to have panettone and pandoro, a traditional sweet yeast bread from Verona, as well as chocolate, the classic Italian nougat of torrone, and baci di dama (hazelnut biscuits) from Turin on hand. In Rome you’ll find mostaccioli, spiced nut biscuits, while in Tuscany you can try cavallucci, biscuits traditionally eaten on the Twelfth Night.  

After lunch, children open and read the love letters they wrote to their parents. At midday in Rome, the Pope appears on his famous balcony in the basilica for a blessing, and pilgrims and locals alike congregate. In the evening, families gather for a low stakes game of tombola (bingo), which was believed to have first been played in Naples in the 18th century. Every number is assigned a symbol that represents the number’s traditional meaning. For example, the number 90 means fear, while 47 represents the speaking dead.  

La Festa di Santa Stefano

 26th December

The day after Christmas is a public holiday honouring St. Stephen. Families feast on leftovers and meet up with friends and neighbours in the streets, and head to their local church to observe the complete nativity scene and give a charitable donation. 

La Festa di San Silvestro

31st December 

Like all around the world, expect the year to begin with a bang! The skies over Italian cities are lit with fireworks. Houses get a spring clean, with residents throwing out items they no longer require in anticipation of the New Year. This is Italy, so naturally New Year’s Eve is another opportunity to feast, but it's kicked off with obligatory aperitivo in the afternoon and tends to be celebrated with friends as well as family.  

Dishes of this auspicious meal are native to the region, but are usually chosen to bring good luck, and often include cotechino (fresh pork sausage), zampone (pig trotter), lenticchie (lentils), uva (grapes) and frutta secca (dried fruits). In fact, it’s believed that the amount of lenticchie and uva eaten represents how much money you will make in the year ahead.  

Many Italians wear red on this auspicious day, and you’ll find shops and markets filled with red clothing. If you don’t notice red on a person, it’s probably because they are wearing red undergarments!  

Il Capodanno

1st January

New Year’s Day is the time to relax and unwind and spend time with your loved ones. It’s not unusual to enjoy a game or two of tombola either!  

Giorno della Befana & La Festa dell' Epifania

6th January

On the evening prior to Epiphany Day, it’s believed an old lady, or ‘good witch’ called La Befana descends upon homes to deliver sweets to well-behaved children and ‘coal’ (black liquorice-flavoured sugar lumps) to naughty children, and so little ones leave out shoes and socks for her to fill.  

The Italian legend of La Befana is that the magi (Three Wise Men) and a shepherd both came to her home on separate occasions to ask for help locating baby Jesus, but she was too busy with domestic duties. After the magi left, she decided to help, and so continues to look for the baby Jesus today, rewarding good children along the way. In typical Santa Claus style, she enters via the chimney, and is grateful when a glass of wine or biscuits and milk are left for her.  

Across most of Italy, La Befana travels by broomstick, except in Venice, where she journeys by boat, naturally. With her broom, La Befana also kindly sweeps away bad deeds and thoughts from the previous year. You’ll find child-friendly events celebrating La Befana in most of the main city squares, particularly in Bologna and Rome. Epiphany Day, also known as Three Kings Day, marks the end of the Italian Christmas season! It's the day that the Three Wise Men encounter baby Jesus, which is why it’s Italy's main day for exchanging Christmas gifts. What a celebration!

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