Christmas in Italy, the unique aspects

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Christmas in Italy, known as “Natale,” is a festive period that seamlessly blends religious traditions, cultural customs, and family-centric celebrations.

This holiday season is one of the most joyous times of the year in Italy, marked by various customs and festivities that vary from region to region, reflecting Italy’s rich and diverse cultural tapestry.

The Christmas season in Italy starts at the beginning of December, with the advent period leading up to Christmas Day. Advent calendars and wreaths are common, and towns start adorning streets with lights and decorations. On December 6th, St. Nicholas Day is celebrated in some parts of Italy, especially in the North, where children receive gifts.

The official start of the festive season is on December 8th with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, a public holiday. This day is not only significant for its religious importance but also because it’s when families traditionally begin to decorate their homes and Christmas trees. In Rome, a ceremonial wreath-laying occurs at the Spanish Steps by the Pope, a symbol of the nation’s devotion.

A unique aspect of Italian Christmas is the elaborate Nativity scenes, or ‘Presepe’. These are not just confined to churches; they are also found in public squares and often at home.

Some towns hold competitions for the best Presepe, and in places like Naples, entire streets are dedicated to artisans selling handcrafted Nativity figures and scenes.

December is also a time for Christmas markets, which pop up in many towns and cities. These markets are filled with festive decorations, gifts, and culinary delights. Traditional foods play a significant role in Italian Christmas celebrations. Apart from the “Panettone” from Milan, there’s “Pandoro” from Verona, “Torrone” (nougat), and various regional specialties.

Christmas Eve, known as “La Vigilia,” is a significant part of the Italian Christmas tradition. Families gather for a grand meal that traditionally consists of fish and seafood. “Feast of the Seven Fishes” is a popular custom in some regions, where seven different seafood dishes are prepared. After dinner, many attend the Midnight Mass, a central part of the Christmas celebration. Christmas Day is usually a more intimate family affair, with a sumptuous lunch that often includes different types of pasta, meats, and sweets. The day after Christmas, “Santo Stefano,” is a time for visiting friends and extended family, continuing the festive spirit.

The Christmas season concludes on January 6th with the Epiphany and the Regatta of Befana in Venice.

Regatta of Befana in Venice: A Unique Celebration on Water

The night before, according to Italian folklore, La Befana, a kind witch, visits children leaving sweets and gifts for the good ones and coal (usually sweet, sugar or chocolate coal) for the naughty ones. This tradition is a favourite among children and is as eagerly anticipated as Christmas itself. Each region in Italy has its own unique way of celebrating Christmas, with local customs and traditions. For example, in the South, particularly in Sicily, elaborate reenactments of the Nativity are common, while in the North, especially in the Alpine regions, you might encounter the traditional “Krampus” run, where people dressed as the mythical creature parade through the streets.

The Regatta – A Race with a Twist

The Regatta of Befana in Venice is not your typical boat race. Participants, typically older Venetian rowers, dress up as La Befana, donning skirts, shawls, and witch hats, and race along the Grand Canal in their boats. The sight of these ‘witches’ rowing competitively, with their brooms in hand, creates a delightful spectacle, drawing crowds of locals and tourists alike. The race usually starts at San Toma and finishes at the Rialto Bridge, with the participants navigating the choppy winter waters of the canal.

The glow of candle-lit churches

Christmas in Italy is a delightful blend of the sacred and the festive. It’s a time when religious traditions, regional customs, and the warmth of family gatherings come together to create a truly magical atmosphere. From the glow of candle-lit churches to the laughter around the family table, Italian Christmas is a celebration of faith, culture, and togetherness.

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