Christmas is serious business in Italy! From decorating the Christmas tree on December 8th to putting together the nativity scene, fried vegetables and fish dishes on Christmas Eve, huge dinners on December 25th and 26th, the ritual of exchanging gifts, playing tombola, watching Christmas movies, and sharing company with family… Italians really love Christmas.
Every region of Italy has its own traditions, with each family’s special ones differing from the next.
I’ve always been curious about these differences and always ask every Italian I know about them! Here are some traditions tied to Christmas trees, nativities, and the foods eaten during the holiday.
So, how do Italians celebrate Christmas? Let’s read on to find out.
Italian Holiday Traditions: the History of Christmas Traditions in Italy
Christmas Trees in Italy
The most well-known symbol of Italian Christmas traditions is the Christmas tree, called the “albero di natale” in Italian.
The Christmas tree has ancient origins. Some say it dates back to 1441 when in the main square of Tallinn, Estonia, they erected a giant tree around which some lonely singles danced to find their second halves. Others say that the tree originated in the 1300s in Basel, Switzerland. Whenever it started, the tradition was taken up by Germany during the 1600s where it was decorated with apples and dried fruits. The Christmas tree tradition stayed north of the Rhine until the start of the 1800s.
In 1815, the Christmas tree tradition started to make its way across Europe thanks to the Vienna Congress.
But when did the Christmas tree arrive in Italy?
In Italy, the Christmas tree appeared during the second half of the 1800s thanks to Queen Margherita of the House of Savoy who erected one in the Palazzo del Quirinale in Rome. The tree was a success, and soon everyone all across Italy wanted one of their own.
Tradition in Italy states that the tree must be put up on December 8th and taken down on January 6th. In Bari, however, they put their trees up on December 6th (the feast of Saint Nicholas) and in Milan, they put their trees up on the 7th for the festa of Saint Ambrose.
In Italy, the nativity is called a “presepe.”
The presepe as we know it today was born thanks to Saint Francis of Assisi. On Christmas Eve 1223 in Greccio, Italy, he put together the first living nativity scene in history. He assembled actors to play the roles of Mary, Joseph, Jesus and the Three Wise Men.
The first nativity with statues dates to 1289. That year, the sculptor Arnolfo di Cambio carved out eight little wooden statues representing the Holy Family, the ox, the donkey, and the Three Wise Men. Today this first carved nativity scene is housed in the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome.
Since that date, thousands of artists make their living from carving wooden or terracotta nativity scenes. The first artisans popped up in Tuscany but later on, the southern regions also caught on. Southern Italian artisans during the 1600s and 1700s even started to bring life to their nativities by carving contemporary people in their scenes. Today, the most famous nativity makers are from Naples, and there is even a whole street where artisans show off their wares (Via San Gregorio Armeno).
Bologna and Genoa are also known for their nativity scenes.
No Italian Christmas is complete without the sound of bagpipes! Everywhere from the town square to the remotest of hillside villages, the zampognari (pipers) keep the tradition of festive bagpipe music alive that dates back to Ancient Rome.
Traditionally, the pipers were shepherds who would travel down from their mountain homes during Christmas to perform for the townsfolk and make some extra money.
The regions where you are most likely to see the zampognari are Abruzzo, Basilicata, Campania, Calabria, Molise, Puglia, and Lazio.
Ceppo di Natale
One of the oldest Italian Christmas traditions dates back to the 12th century! Known as the “ceppo di natale,” this particular tradition started in Northern Europe and reached its way to Italy.
In Italy, the ceppo di natale is most closely followed in Lombardy (known as the “zocco” there) and in Tuscany, where it is called the “ciocco”. With a toast, the head of the family places a large log or tree trunk in the fire which is left to burn until the Epiphany.
The ceppo is considered to be good luck for the new year.
Santa Claus, Santa Lucia or Baby Jesus–Who Brings the Gifts?
Today in most areas around Italy, Santa Claus hauls gifts around for the children. However, in some area of Italy like Brescia, Bergamo and Verona, Santa Lucia brings them.
Many years ago, Italian tradition dictated that it was Baby Jesus who gave children gifts. In some Italian American families, this tradition is kept alive.
Christmas Eve (the “vigilia”) and Christmas Dinners
Italy is divided across north-south lines when it comes to what to eat for Christmas! In the center and the south, Christmas Eve tends to be the more important meal (that’s not to say that Christmas dinner isn’t important!), whereas in the north, Christmas Day reigns.
Christmas Eve dinner is meatless because Catholic tradition states it is a day of abstinence. So, what do Italians do? They keep it meatless, but eat a bunch of other delicious stuff like fried and battered veggies and fish!
Typical Christmas dishes in Italy vary from region to region. Polenta with codfish and sauces is typical in the Veneto region, while eel is eaten in Lombardy, and there is agnolotti pasta in Piemonte, beef cooked in red wine in the Aosta Valley, canederli (Austrian dumplings) and goat in Trentino, and tortellini in broth are popular in Emilia Romagna, along with spaghetti with clams and stuffed capon in Campania, pasta with sardines in Sicily… and the list just goes on and on!
Other dishes that are on almost everyone’s table are lasagne and cannelloni and roast pork or lamb, as well as various batter-fried goodies.
No Italian Christmas is complete without dessert! And just like everything else in Italy, regional customs dictate what is eaten.
Three of the most popular Italian desserts are panettone, pandoro, and torrone.
Panettone is a dessert from Milan. It’s said to have been around since the 1200s. One legend states that it was the brainchild of a certain Ughetto degli Atellani who was in love with a woman named Adalgisa, daughter of a baker named Toni. In order to get close to her, he improvised a dish and invented the panettone by adding butter and candied fruits. The two married and the dessert was a huge success–so much so that people came from all around to buy the “pan del Ton.”
A fun Milanese tradition states that you should reserve a piece of the panettone from Christmas lunch and eat it on February 3 (Saint Blaise’s day) with your family to ward off a cold and sore throat!
Pandoro is originally from Verona, but its ancient origins trace back to Rome. The recipe we know today is an 18th century evolution of the recipe for nadalin, a Veronese cake. In 1894, Domenico Melegatti patented the first pandoro recipe. Its 8-pointed star shape is thanks to the impressionist painter Angelo Dall’Oca Bianca.
This Christmas dessert’s name comes from the Latin torreo which means “to toast.” It’s easy to see why–torrone contains toasted nuts. Its origins have been lost with time, but in Benevento, torrone was already being prepared during the time of the Samnites, an Italic people inhabiting ancient Italy. Even the Romans knew about torrone, as Tito Livio wrote about the dessert.
Today there are soft and hard torroni (the plural of “torrone”) depending on how long it is cooked, and how much honey or sugar is added to the recipe.
Sardinian torrone is particularly good. It is ivory white, and is not made with sugar (but rather only with Mediterranean honey). One torrone-like dessert is cubbaita from Sicily, a recipe learned from the Arabs. In Sicily, cubbaita has pistachios, honey, and almonds.
My personal favorite dessert in Italy is neither panettone, nor pandoro, torrone, or cubbaita: it’s honey balls! Known as struffoli or pignolata, they’re an unmistakeable part of every southern Italian table.
What are your favorite Italian Christmas traditions? Tell us in the comments below!