Christmas in Italy

Italian traditions and celebrations

Living in Italy for many years gave me a pretty good idea of what Christmas means in this country.

Firstly, Italians do not celebrate only one day but it is a seasonal celebration. Christmas is a festivity that lasts weeks, basically until the Epiphany on 6 January.

You can  start feeling the Christmas spirit on December 8th when Italians celebrate the Immaculate Conception. This is the day when many Italians first put out their decorations, which are traditionally the Christmas tree and Nativity scene (presepe).

The popular custom of creating presepe during Christmas originated in Italy many centuries ago and Napoli is one of the best cities to visit for admiring elaborate yet traditional Nativity cribs. In Naples you will find the craftsmen who create the Nativity figures, carved from wood or clay. Visit Via San Gregorio Armeno, a market where people purchase items/decorations they need for their nativity scene. In Naples, there is always the tradition to place a contemporary figure, from politics to sports, on the presepe. Although you can find a Maradona figurine all year around.

In some towns, you might even find a “live nativity” (presepe vivente) in which locals in costumes act the scenes from the Christmas story.

Today, the presepe consists not only of small, hand-carved figurines, set in scenes representing Jesus’ birth but all sorts of elaborated details. Italians are very serious about their presepe and get very creative.  Families usually build an entire scene with twinkling lights, fake grass, electrically powered wells and much more.

In Italy, Christmas has kept its religious roots more than in many other countries, perhaps due to the Vatican presence on the territory. However, for Italians Christmas is really about the joy of family and food.

December 24: La Vigilia (Christmas Eve) is a family gathering, with a big Christmas supper served. The menu varies from region to region.


Traditionally Italian enjoy a meatless feast, which is based mainly on fish: baccala (salted dried cod fish), capitone (eel), calamari (squid), and vongole (clams). After come some sweets with nuts and almonds like biscotti, panforte, pandoro and panettone, filled with raisins and candied fruits. Family celebration continues until almost midnight when everyone attends church for midnight mass.

This is also a gift-giving night when Babbo Natale (Santa Claus) makes the rounds and leaves the presents. Many children receive presents from Father Christmas on Christmas Eve, but there is also another unique Italian tradition of ‘La Befana’, the old witch who brings gifts on Epiphany Eve (6th January).

December 25: Natale

Christmas Day is another big family gathering, this time for a festive lunch, that is based on meat dishes.  Usually it will be stuffed cappone (capon) or roast beef. Panettone is served as dessert. Italians enjoy an exquisite menu. Another charming day lasts until late, with board games, tasting homemade delicacies and good wines.

December 26: Santo Stefano Saint Stephen’s Day (Boxing Day), the Feast of the first Christian martyr, is a public holiday in Italy and it is obviously another occasion to gather with your loved ones and to dig into even more homemade specialities.

January 6: La Befana or Epifania

Babbo Natale is still giving gifts on Christmas, however it is becoming more and more popular, that children wait until Epiphany to receive their presents. La Befana (an old witch) who rides a broomstick around the country on the night of January 5th leaves the gifts in children stockings.

What to do in Italy during Christmas?

All the big Italian cities like Naples, Rome and Milan are wonderful places to visit during the Christmas season. Many of them host Christmas markets: like Piazza Navona in Rome, Piazza Castello, Milan. These are excellent places to pick up souvenirs, last-minute gifts, or Italian holiday treats.

Vatican is another place worth visiting, due to its celebrations. Saint Peter’s Square in Vatican City is where the popular midnight mass is celebrated by the Pope and on Christmas Day the Pope appears on his balcony to bless the crowd gathered. If you are in Naples, you should definitely visit the famous street of the nativity scene artisans, Via San Gregorio Armeno, in the historic centre.  And let’s not forget in Italy there are also the fabulous ski resorts in the Dolomites and the Italian Alps.

Why not spending Christmas break in the Bel Paese, eating Italian delicatessen, shopping the local artisan products and enjoying the snow and winter sports.

And finally, we would love to share with you one of Italian Christmas recipes for Struffoli, known as Honey Balls. It is a Neapolitan dish made of deep fried balls of sweet dough.

Struffoli recipe


450 g of flour

3 eggs

90 g of butter

3 Tbl spoon of sugar

A bit of spirit (rum or strega)

2 Tbls of honey

Decorations:  candid citrus peel, coloured sugar sprinkles mix

Combine flour, eggs, butter, sugar and citrus peel, add a touch of rum and make it into dough. Leave it to rest a bit. Then take a piece of dough and roll into ropes. Cut it into pieces 5mm long. Roll these pieces into little balls and set aside. In the frying pan heat the oil and fry the balls until golden brown. Then remove the excess of butter, add the honey and stir gently until they are well covered. Place them on the plate and add decorations.