Authentic Italian Christmas Eve Dinner – Our Traditions and Dishes

Ciao!  It’s Marica, from the Marche region of Italy. 

Are you in Italy for the holidays and you’ve been invited to a Christmas Eve dinner?

Or, are you planning on cooking your own Italian Christmas Eve dinner?

Maybe you’re just curious about our holiday traditions. 

Whatever your reason is, let’s take a look at one of the most important meals of the year in Italy – Christmas Eve dinner!

Italian Christmas Eve Traditions

Rieti streets on a quiet evening during the Christmas season.
Rieti, Italy

Christmas Day might be the day everyone is waiting for, but Christmas Eve in Italy is an integral part of our Christmas holiday.

Italians usually spend December 24th:

  • with family
  • sharing a large Christmas Eve dinner
  • unwrapping a few gifts
  • waiting until midnight to celebrate the arrival of Christmas Day

Our Christmas celebrations are rooted in Catholicism, and at one time, the religious aspect of the holiday was the most important.

For example, most Italians used to:

  • go to midnight mass on Christmas Eve to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ
  • eat a Christmas Eve dinner of 13 courses (symbolizing the 12 apostles who sat in the Upper Room around Jesus)
  • not clear the Christmas Eve table until midnight, the moment of the birth of Jesus Christ

Although Italians still identify themselves as Catholics, religious traditions are losing their importance with younger generations.

For example, in my family, my grandmothers are still very religious – they go to church on Sundays and attend midnight mass on Christmas Eve.  But, for the rest of our family, La Vigilia (Christmas Eve) isn’t a huge event, with most of us spending the evening at home with our immediate families.  We usually celebrate Christmas Day and Santo Stefano Day (December 26th) together as a large extended family group.

But that’s us! In general, Christmas Eve and the Christmas Eve dinner are important parts of Italy’s holiday calendar.

In this post, I’ll explain:

  • Christmas Eve dinner traditions in Italy
  • The typical Italian Christmas Eve dinner menu
  • What to do if you’re invited to an Italian Christmas Eve dinner
  • Tips for hosting your own Italian Christmas Eve dinner

Read more about Traditional Italian Christmas Food!

Christmas Eve Dinner Traditions in Italy

Panettone, an Italian Christmas cake.

Christmas Eve, or La Vigilia di Natale, is when families come together to spend quality time, have fun, and eat delicious food.

La Vigilia looks different depending on where you are in the country: in southern Italy, the religious importance of Christmas Eve is taken into more consideration compared to northern and central Italy. People are more likely to attend midnight mass, eat seafood exclusively, and have a 13-course dinner.

Good To Know:  The traditional Italian Christmas Eve meal is fish and seafood-based because the 24th of December is giorno di magro (lean day or ‘no meat’ day).  On the day, Italians either fast or eat simple peasant food as a sign of respect and devotion.

The emphasis of the Cenone della Vigilia (Big Christmas Eve dinner) is on freshness and variety, referring to both seafood type and cooking method.

The dinner usually begins around 6:00 pm.  After the welcome drinks and the aperitif, the real meal begins, and it goes on for hours!

After desserts are served, some families unwrap gifts while others play games (board games or classic card games like briscola or burraco).

Like on Christmas Day, the meal is the most important part of the Vigilia – sharing food with your loved ones (your immediate family or a larger family group) is the true essence of the Christmas holiday!

Typical Italian Christmas Eve Dinner Menu

Collage of typical Italian Christmas Eve dinner dishes.

There are many typical foods for Christmas Eve dinner, depending on where you are in Italy.

Nonetheless, a traditional Italian Christmas Eve Menu contains a mix of the following courses:

Italian Christmas Eve Aperitif (Aperitivo)

The Cenone della Vigilia cannot begin before the aperitivo is served! The aperitif revolves around signature drinks that can be offered alongside finger foods.

The typical drink to enjoy during the aperitivo is a glass of prosecco. However, Italians love cocktails as well, and on Christmas Eve, the host can serve:

  • Aperol spritz, the classic cocktail from Veneto made from prosecco, aperol, sparkling water, and an orange slice.
  • Bellini, with spumante brut (the Italian version of champagne) or prosecco and fresh peach or juice peach.
  • Vin Brulè, mulled red wine with spices and sugar.
  • Punch, a hot rum-based cocktail with orange punch, orange peel, cinnamon, and anise.

Read more about Aperitivo in Italy!

Italian Christmas Eve Appetizers (Antipasti)

  • Smoked salmon crostini (sliced of smoked salmon served on bread with butter or cream cheese)
  • Scallops au gratin
  • Octopus salad
  • Marinated anchovies
  • Insalata russa (Russian salad, prepared with cooked potatoes, carrots, peas and mayonnaise)
  • Fried finger foods such as vegetables, mozzarella (mozzarella in carrozza), and cream (cremini)

Italian Christmas Eve First Courses (Primi)

The first course is usually a pasta dish. But in some regions, the first course may be a rice or soup dish:

  • Spaghetti alle vongole (with clams)
  • Spaghetti or paccheri allo scoglio (with a mix of seafood)
  • Spaghetti al nero di seppia (spaghetti with ink squid)
  • Risotto alla marinara (seafood risotto)
  • Zuppa della Vigilia di Natale (a traditional Christmas Eve soup from the Umbria region made with chickpeas and chestnuts)

Italian Christmas Eve Main Courses (Secondi)

The second courses on Christmas Eve are traditionally fish or seafood dishes:

  • Baccalà fritto (fried cod)
  • Stewed cod in tomato sauce
  • Pan-fried swordfish
  • Orata al forno (roasted sea bream with potatoes, taggiasche olives, and cherry tomatoes)
  • Spigola all’acqua pazza (sea bass with cherry tomatoes, parsley and garlic)
  • Roasted salmon
  • Capitone in umido (stewed eel)
  • Cotechino con lenticchie (pork sausage with lentils)

Italian Christmas Eve Vegetable Dishes (Verdure)

  • Insalata di rinforzo (a Neapolitan dish is made with cauliflower, cucumber, black olives, anchovies, capers and peppers sott’aceto, with a dressing of extra virgin olive oil and red wine vinegar)
  • Roasted potatoes or broccoli
  • Insalata russa (the leftover appetizer!)
  • Sauteed mushrooms or spinach
  • Roasted pumpkin with herbs
  • Artichokes (fried or roasted)

Italian Christmas Eve Desserts (Dolci)

Desserts are another part of the Christmas Eve dinner that changes from region to region. However, there are a few desserts that you can find on every single table, from northern Italy to southern Italy:

  • Pandoro
  • Panettone
  • Torrone
  • Mandarins, clementines, and walnuts. Although not strictly sweets, these fruits are mandatory foods at the end of the Italian Christmas Eve meal!

Attending an Italian Christmas Eve Dinner

If you’re invited to a Christmas Eve dinner in Italy, you should consider bringing a gift to the host. A bottle of wine is always a great idea and a much-appreciated gift.

Desserts are also a nice alternative, but considering that you’ve been invited to a Cenone della Vigilia, the host probably has plenty of desserts prepared! You could simply ask if another dessert is needed or not.

If you don’t want to show up empty-handed, a plant or flowers are go-to gifts.

The Christmas Eve dinner usually starts around 6:00 pm, so unless you’re invited at a specific time, you can show up for then for aperitivo!

Also, make sure you arrive with an empty belly because you will be eating a lot.  You know how Italians cooks are with their food – if you don’t eat every course, the host might think you don’t like it!

You may want to read about Christmas in Italy for Kids!

Hosting Italian Christmas Eve Dinner

Bird's eye view of white wooden table with parmesan cheese, olives, pomegranate seeds, taralli, pasta, prosecco, and clementine.

At first glance, hosting a typical Italian Christmas Eve dinner seems like a lot of work, but I assure you that it’s easier than it seems! The key to hosting a successful Cenone della Vigilia is being organized (just like you are with American Thanksgiving meals!).

First up – gathering ingredients. If you’re in Italy, you can order the ingredients you need from supermarkets or local shops.  I recommend going to the local shops around ten days before the Vigilia to put in your order. If you’re abroad, you can order any specialty foods from Italian delis or markets.

Next, prep as many dishes as possible the day before or the morning of December 24th. Chop vegetables, gut the fish, and prep as much as you can so you can attend to your guests properly when they arrive for the Cenone.

Either purchase desserts from a bakery or make them yourself.  But, know that Italian Christmas desserts are quite challenging to make, especially pandoro and panettone, so I highly suggest you buy them – we do!

Just before guests arrive, prepare the aperitivo so the cocktails and the finger foods welcome your guests on their arrival.

The Cenone della Vigilia is a relaxed gathering of friends, family, and food. So don’t stress out too much and forget formality! Invite your guests to sit at the dinner table, and before serving the antipasto, propose a toast with your guests and wish everyone ‘Buona Vigilia’ (the traditional saying on Christmas Eve).

Once the desserts are finished, the next part of the party begins! Put on some music, unwrap gifts (if you wish to do so on Christmas Eve), and play board games or card games with your guests into the night! 

I hope you enjoy your Vigilia di Natale!

FAQ

Can you eat at a restaurant on Christmas Eve in Italy?
Restaurants are open on Christmas Eve and usually have a special Christmas Eve menu (ordering a la carte is not possible).  Italians tend to spend their Christmas Eve meals at home, while many go to a restaurant on Christmas Day.

Is the Feast of the Seven Fishes an Italian Christmas Eve dinner tradition?
The Feast of the Seven Fishes is not an Italian Christmas tradition.  It’s actually an Italian-American tradition.  The Feast of the Seven Fishes is a (you guessed it) seven-course fish-based meal served on Christmas Eve that helped those that had left Italy feel a connection to their homeland.  There may be seven different seafood dishes, or fish may be prepared in seven different ways.