Christmas in Italy is a joyous family occasion and of course we also have our own portly gentleman in red with a jolly face and long white beard – Babbo Natale!
Who is Babbo Natale?
Babbo Natale literally means ‘Daddy Christmas.’ Babbo is an everyday word that’s commonly used for ‘dad’ in Italian – especially in Tuscany.
As in other countries, Babbo Natale usually wears the customary red tunic and is the elderly gentleman with the famous white beard. However, he also has to compete for popularity with La Befana.
Like many other holiday figures, Christian tradition blends with far older pagan celebrations. Italian children await him sometime during the night between December 24th and 25th, when he flies in from the North Pole or somewhere nearby* with his elves and his reindeer.
*Babbo Natale’s official homeland is Joulupukin Pajakylä, around 8 km from Rovaniemi in Finland
The Origins of Babbo Natale
Babbo Natale is the Italian equivalent of Santa Claus in English-speaking countries. All these similar figures derive mainly from the same historical figure: St Nicholas, bishop of Myra (today Demre, a city in modern-day Turkey). It’s said St. Nicholas found and brought back to life three children who had been kidnapped and killed by an innkeeper, and from then on he was considered the Protector of Children.
In parts of Italy (but also in the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, Switzerland, Germany, the Czech Republic and Slovenia) he is still depicted as wearing bishop’s robes.
The relics of St. Nicholas were partly transported to Bari, a town in the south of Italy, according to a fisherman’s legend, but in reality, they were smuggled out of Myra in 1087 by merchants and a basilica was built to house them, with the foundations being laid on a pre-existing structure, in the same year. The site, the basilica of St Nicholas of Bari, has been a place of pilgrimage for the faithful ever since.
Part of the holy relics, which remained in Myra, were later found by the Venetians and moved to the church and abbey of St Nicholas in Venice’s Lido. The left humerus is still almost intact in Rimini and other bones are scattered around Europe!
What Babbo Natale Looks Like
‘Daddy Christmas’ does have a father. If you want to give Babbo Natale as he appears today authorship, it’s undoubtedly cartoonist Haddon Sundblom, originally from Michigan in the United States! For decades he was in charge of drawing Santa Claus on behalf of The Coca-Cola Company.
He was initially inspired by a poem by Clement Clark Moore from 1822, in which St. Nicholas was described as chubby and cozy. But in order to draw him for real, Sundblom asked his friend Lou Prentiss, who was a retired salesman, for help. He modeled for him and became the Babbo Natale we all know and love today, both in Italy and the US.
How to Pronounce Babbo Natale
Babbo Natale is pronounced BAHB-boh nah-TAH-leh.
Listen to it here:
Babbo Natale in Present Day Italy
The visits to Santa’s grotto are just as popular in Italy as in other countries. You will often find him at a centro commerciale (shopping mall) or sitting on his sleigh in a village piazza. You’ll even see him in unique settings in the Italian landscape where he fits in perfectly. Some examples include:
- in Ornavasso (Piedmont), Babbo Natale ditches his reindeer and takes a trip boat trip on Lake Maggiore before rocking up to his grotto
- in the Magico Paese di Natale (Magical Christmas Village) in Govone (also in Piedmont) nominated as one of Europe’s best Christmas markets
- in the gorgeous Valle d’Aosta between Italy and France at Chateau Noel in the grounds of Castello Gamba (Gamba Castle).
But never fear! There are Christmas villages all over Italy from north to south where you can see Santa in person – he’s a busy guy and he gets around!
As in other countries, children will write their letters to Babbo Natale. Good children will get their gifts under the Christmas tree while bad children will receive nothing. Italian kids can even send online free of charge (Babbo Natale is completely kept up to date with technology) through Poste Italiane (Italian Postal Service), and you’re assured of a reply.
The Anglo-Saxon tradition of leaving out some food for Santa also exists in Italy, although it’s usually a carrot for the reindeer and mince pies are unheard of! Our family usually leaves homemade cookies and milk for Santa and carrots for the reindeer. But, my kids have also left slices of pizza and bread with Nutella!
Good To Know: Although Babbo Natale rules in Italy, there are some regions, that have different traditions. In northern Italy and some parts of the south, children look forward to December 6th, which is St. Nicholas Day (La Festa di San Nicola). Presents are received on the night the saint is celebrated. Similarly, in Bergamo and Verona, children celebrate on December 13th in honor of Santa Lucia (St. Lucy). Children usually write a letter addressed to the saint in which they say they’ve been good and deserve a present. To thank her, they leave a small bowl of flour for St. Lucy’s donkey (no reindeer here!) and a cup of coffee with bread and biscuits for the saint herself.
Spending the holidays in Italy? Or just curious about how we celebrate here? Check out our Christmas posts:
Where to Spend Christmas in Italy
Christmas in Italy for Kids – Traditions & How to Celebrate
How to Say Merry Christmas in Italian
Traditional Italian Christmas Foods
Traditional Italian Christmas Lunch
Authentic Italian Christmas Eve Dinner
Pandoro vs Panettone
Presepe – The Italian Nativity Scene
Babbo Natale – Italy’s Santa Claus
La Befana – Italy’s Christmas Witch
12 Italian Christmas Traditions We Still Celebrate
Where to Buy a Christmas Tree in Italy
10 Best Places to See Christmas Trees in Italy
Best Christmas Markets in Italy
Christmas in Tuscany
Babbo Natale’s Reindeer
Babbo Natale has nine reindeer (renne). Their names are:
|Rudolph (the red-nosed reindeer)||Rudolfo (la renna del naso rosso)|
Listen to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in Italian:
Babbo Natale’s Rival – La Befana
La Befana is another Babbo Natale rival! This old lady flying on a broomstick comes at Epiphany to visit children on the night between January 5th and 6th to fill the stockings they leave, specially hung on the chimney or near a window. Children who have behaved well during the year will get sweets, candies, dried fruit, or small toys. But beware – those who behaved badly will find their stockings filled with coal or even garlic!
Read more about La Befana – Italy’s Christmas Witch!
Getting ready for the holidays? Check out our Curated List of Gifts for Italy Lovers!
What is Babbo Natale called in other languages?
Here are some evocative names for Babbo Natale or his gift-bringing equivalent in other languages:
Şaxta Baba (frost father) – Azerbaijani
Bizarzuri (White Beard) – Basque
Djed Mraz (Grandfather Frost) – Bosnian
聖誕老人 (Christmas Old Man) – Cantonese
Svatý Mikuláš (Saint Nicholas) – Czech
Julemanden (Yule-Man) – Danish
Joulupukki – (Yule Goat) – Finnish
Père Noël (Father Christmas) – French
Weihnachtsmann (Christmas Man) – Germany
Jólasveinar (Yule lads) – Iceland
Daidí na Nollag (Daddy December) – Irish
Bodach na Nollaig (Old Man of Christmas) – Scots Gaelic
Papá Noel (Daddy Christmas) – Spanish
Jultomten (Yule Gnome) – Swedish
Siôn Corn (John of the Chimney) – Welsh
Does the Pope / Catholic church approve of Babbo Natale?
While Pope Francis has praised the presepe (nativity scene) and the Christmas tree as real symbols of Christmas, Babbo Natale is a bit more controversial for the Catholic Church, which wants the focus brought back to Jesus’ birth and the manger.
The bishop of Rieti, Monsignor Domenico Pompili, commented that there has been “a reinvention of Christmas by Coca Cola in America; it was part of this process that transformed the Christ Child into Father Christmas.” He continued: “this reinvention also happens to be seen in large supermarket chains where there is no mention of the nativity scene. There you see the nativity scene without the grotto, which is like talking about Christmas without the birthday boy.”