Christmas in Italy for Kids – Traditions & How to Celebrate

Is your family visiting Italy during the holidays and you want to celebrate Christmas while you’re here?

Are you a homeschooler and want to teach your kids about Christmas in Italy?

Maybe you’re just curious about how we celebrate Christmas with kids in Italy.

In this article, we’ll answer all of your questions about Christmas in Italy with children, including:

  • When kids in Italy celebrate Christmas
  • Christmas traditions and activities for children in Italy
  • How Italian schoolchildren celebrate Christmas
  • How you can celebrate Christmas in Italy on a visit with your family
  • Ways to celebrate Italian Christmas from the comfort of your own home

The traditions and activities below are by no means the only way Italians celebrate Christmas.  There are exceptions and regional variations, but these are some common ways you’ll see the holiday celebrated by kids here in Italy.

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Spending the holidays in Italy? Or just curious about how we celebrate here? Check out:
Where to Spend Christmas in Italy
Christmas in Italy for Kids
Traditional Italian Christmas Foods
Authentic Italian Christmas Eve Dinner

When is Christmas in Italy?

Christmas tree lit up in Piazza del Duomo in Florence, Italy.

The holiday season in Italy runs from December 8th through January 6th.  Important dates during this time include:

December 8th – Festa dell’Immacolata Concezione (Feast of the Immaculate Conception)

The unofficial beginning of the holiday season in Italy.  Christmas markets open, towns and cities light the Christmas tree, and families set up their Christmas trees and presepi at home.

December 8th is a National Holiday in Italy.

Good To Know:  Families may choose to decorate on other days, and cities may also choose other dates for openings and tree lightings.  Before making plans, check official dates and hours.

December 24th – Vigilia di Natale (Christmas Eve)

Christmas Eve in Italy usually includes a large meat-free cenone (big dinner) with family.

December 25th – Natale (Christmas Day)

Christmas Day is also spent with family, eating a large meal (or two!), often with a meat focus.

December 25th is a National Holiday in Italy.

Good To Know:  Family is the focus during the Christmas season in Italia.  Italians have a famous saying, “Natale con i tuoi, Pasqua con chi vuoi.”  Meaning, you spend Christmas with your parents and family, and you can spend Easter holidays with anyone you like.

December 26th – Giorno di Santo Stefano (St. Stephen’s Day)

The day is typically spent with close friends or family (can be immediate family instead of a large family gathering) outdoors to going to see a presepe.

December 26th is a National Holiday in Italy.

December 31st – Vigilia di Capodanno (New Year’s Eve)

New Year’s Eve is celebrated with friends or family, at home or out.  Large dinners (cenoni) and traditions abound. 

January 1st – Capodanno (New Year’s Day)

New Year’s Day is a quiet day in Italy, with most people relaxing and recovering from the previous evening’s celebrations. 

January 1st is a National Holiday in Italy.

January 6th – Epifania (Epiphany)

Also known as La Befana, for the witch that visits homes of children the night before, leaving sweet treats for good children and a lump of coal for naughty boys and girls.

January 6th is a National Holiday in Italy.

When Do Children in Italy Celebrate the Christmas Holiday?

Quiet Via Tornabuoni with lights and Christmas tree made of lights in Florence, Italy

Italian schoolchildren usually have short breaks for the Christmas holiday.  Students are let out a couple of days before Christmas Eve (depending on the day of the week it falls on), and they return to school on the first possible day after the Epiphany on January 6th

Christmas Activities in Italy for Kids

Presepe in a shop in Ortisei, Italy.

Decorate the Christmas Tree

The tradition is to set up the family Christmas tree on December 8th, but it’s not a set date.  Some families set it up on the weekend closest to the 8th.  Like in other countries, the family tree may be full of homemade and sentimental ornaments, or it may be a precise, artistic piece on display in the home. 

Italians use both artificial and real Christmas trees.  You can find trees for sale in cities, at garden centers, and in large grocery store chains.

What We Do:  We have an artificial tree that we decorate with handmade ornaments the kids have created at school and at home. 

See the City Christmas Tree Lighting

Sometime around the 8th of December, towns and cities light the official Christmas tree (if they have one).  Families head to town for the lighting and then spend the evening looking at the twinkling lights, window displays, and shops.

Presepi

The presepe (also called presepio) is an Italian Nativity Scene.  Presepi are a big deal in Italy, and are sometimes the most important decoration in the home.  They can be passed down through generations, and can be made with simple materials or large elaborate setups.  

You can also see presepi in public, in churches or town centers.  They may be life-size, or even composed of real people (presepi viventi). 

Read more about Presepi (Italy’s Nativity Scenes) What They Are & Where To See Them.

See Santa Claus

Santa Claus, better known in Italy as Babbo Natale, can be seen during the holiday season, but not as much as in other countries like the United States. 

You can usually see him for a few set dates at centri commerciali (shopping malls), at Christmas markets, and sometimes on an afternoon visit to a small town or village.

Seeing Santa (and taking photos with him) isn’t a given for Italian children.  They’re more likely to send him a letter.

Leave a Stocking Our for La Befana

La Befana, the friendly old witch, is more well-known than Babbo Natale to some Italians (especially the older generations). 

Italian children leave a stocking or old sock out for La Befana’s visit to their homes on the night of January 5th (before the Epiphany).  Well-behaved children wake to find sweet treats, while naughty children are greeted with a lump of coal!

Check out our free, printable La Befana Coloring Pages!

Go to a Christmas Market

Families enjoy heading to a Mercatino di Natale (Christmas Market) during the holiday season.  It’s worth noting that they aren’t present in all towns.  You’ll usually find them in larger cities, and the best Italian Christmas markets are in Northern Italy in the Dolomites. 

They typically sell ornaments, small gifts like mittens or figurines and food. 

We enjoy going for a stroll, browsing the stalls, and getting a hot chocolate or mulled wine.

Decorate for Christmas

In Italy, the focus of Christmas decorations in the home is one the presepe and the albero di natale (Christmas tree).  This is due to tradition, and the fact that lights and other decorations can be expensive here.  So, you’ll see a few strands of lights in windows or wrapped around bushes, but no elaborate decorations (sorry, Clark Griswold).

Have Huge Christmas Meals with Family

Italians love a good meal, and the Christmas holidays are no exception. 

Families gather for Christmas Eve dinner, Christmas Day lunch and/or dinner, and sometimes for a lunch on Santo Stefano (the 26th).

While younger kids don’t typically assist in the preparation of the Christmas meals, they’re around the house playing with visiting family and friends.

Attend Midnight Mass

While church attendance continues to decline in Italy, many Italians still attend services during the holidays (especially Easter and Christmas).

Churches big and small throughout Italy offer Midnight Mass.  If you want to attend, confirm the exact time (it may not be at midnight on the dot).  For Midnight Mass in larger cities, you may need a ticket or you will need to arrive early to get a seat.

Give and Receive Presents

It’s not a given that you’ll receive a gift on Christmas Day!  Depending on where you are in Italy, children may receive gifts on:

  • December 6Festa di San Nicolò (St. Nicholas Day).  Children in a few areas of Italy (Bari, Trieste, and parts of South Tyrol / Alto Adige) receive gifts from San Nicolò (aka San Nicola).
  • December 13Festa di Santa Lucia (St. Lucy Day).  Children in Northern Italy receive sweets and presents from the blind old woman, Santa Lucia.
  • December 24Vigilia di Natale (Christmas Eve).  Children receive gifts from Babbo Natale (Santa Claus) as well as friends and family.
  • December 25Natale (Christmas Day).  Children receive gifts from Babbo Natale (Santa Claus) as well as friends and family.
  • January 6Epifania / La Befana (Epiphany / La Befana).  Children receive gifts from the friendly old witch, La Befana.

What We Do:  Babbo Natale visits our home on Christmas Eve to deliver gifts and leave treats in stockings.  We open gifts on Christmas Day morning.  We also leave out our stockings until January 5th, when La Befana arrives and leaves a few small treats during the night.

Sometimes communities organize volunteers to collect gifts from households and Babbo Natale delivers them to children by knocking on the door on Christmas Eve and handing the gifts to the household’s children.

Eat Christmas Treats

Sweet treats are everywhere you look during the holidays in Italy.  Pasticcerie (pastry shops), forni (bakeries) are working overtime to produce Christmas specialties like pandoro and panettoneYou can also find mass-produced (and still delicious) Christmas cakes at grocery stores and markets. 

Even if you’re not a fan of sweets, it’s fun to look at the holiday window displays of bakeries and pastry shops. 

Gingerbread houses aren’t common, but they’re becoming more popular.  They’re sold by shops or large chains like IKEA.

Travel in Italy or Abroad

Because students don’t have much vacation time during the year (we have a looooong three month summer break), families take advantage of the longest holiday of the year and choose to travel. 

Within Italy, popular destinations are cities (for lights, Christmas decorations and markets) and the mountains (for skiing, snowboarding, and snow sports in the Dolomites and Alps).

Christmas Celebrations at Schools in Italy

Christmas is a big deal in schools in Italy, especially in preschool and elementary school.  December is full of Christmas celebrations and events.

Christmas Carols

Children learn Christmas carols (in Italian, but sometimes in English) and sing at school or in the neighborhood.

Decorate a Christmas Tree

Small towns often have large trees that classes decorate, or teachers may set up a small tree in the classroom.

Leave Treats out Overnight for the Elves and Reindeer

Some classes set out small tables during the December for the elves or reindeer.  Each child can bring something (for example, a carrot or a cookie) and they’re delighted the next day when everything’s been nibbled on!

Christmas Arts and Crafts

Italian children spend time in December painting, drawing, and creating Christmas-themed crafts, with a religious or non-religious theme.

Christmas Concerts & Plays

Some schools put on a Christmas-themed play or concert for parents, family, and friends. 

Good To Know:  Although religion is still present in public schools in Italy, parents can opt-out and have their children participate in an alternate activity.

Celebrating Christmas in Italy on a Visit with Kids

Christmas lights decorating a street in Empoli, Italy.  There is a train lit up with lights.

You can do many of the above activities, especially:

  • Seeing a Christmas tree lighting
  • Visiting Christmas markets
  • Eating Christmas treats, like pandoro and panforte
  • Attending Midnight Mass
  • Going to the Pope’s Christmas Day blessing in the Vatican City

You may want to check out:
Where to Spend Christmas in Italy
Italy in December
Italy in January

Italy with a Baby or Toddler
Italy with Teens

Christmas in Italy Books for Kids

The Legend of Old Befana: An Italian Christmas Story, by Tomie dePaola

Merry Christmas Strega Nona, by Tomie dePaola

Strega Nona’s Gift, by Tomie dePaola

Joy to the World:  Tomie’s Christmas Stories, by Tomie dePaola

Buon Natale – Learning Songs & Traditions in Italian, by Sophia Rossi

Nonna Tell Me a Story, by Lidia Bastianich

Creating an Italian Christmas Outside of Italy

Italian panettone sliced and on a festive Christmas table.
panettone

If you want to get into the Italian Christmas spirit while you’re abroad, you can:

  • Cook a traditional Italian Christmas Eve or Christmas Day meal
  • Read books about Christmas in Italy
  • Set up a presepe or create your own
  • Purchase or cook an Italian dessert (pandoro, panettone, or Christmas cookies)
  • Learn how to say Merry Christmas in Italian
  • Spend an afternoon working on Italy Christmas coloring pages
  • Listen to Italian Christmas Songs

FAQ

Are other religions celebrated during the winter holidays in Italy?
Other religions are free to celebrate their holidays, but Christmas tends to dominate in the home of the Catholic church.

Street decorated for Christmas in Locorotondo, Puglia, Italy.