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Italian Christmas Lunch – Traditions and Dishes for an Authentic Italian Holiday Meal

Here in Italy, we anticipate the arrival of Christmas – a time to be with our families, to exchange and unwrap gifts, and most importantly – to eat delicious food!

Italians’ main guilty pleasure is indeed food, and if there is one day where having a feast is mandatory, it’s Christmas Day.

Christmas is a fundamental day in the religious calendar, and in the past, its main reason was to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. Today, the religious importance of December 25th is often pushed aside, and religious Italians tend to celebrate Christmas Eve by going to midnight mass.

Each family has its own customs and traditions, which can differ greatly depending on where in Italy they live. In general, extended families come together and spend time around the Christmas tree exchanging gifts, sitting for a long Christmas Day lunch, and playing board games and card games.

This is also how I celebrate Christmas with my family, Growing up, we used to gather with the grandparents and all the uncles, aunts, and cousins; however, for the past few years, I’ve stayed at home with my immediate family and grandparents. We unwrap the gifts in the morning, and after lunch is over, my sister and I go for a walk on the beach with our dog before joining the card games!

If you are curious to know all about how Italians celebrate Christmas Day, in this post, you will discover:

  • Christmas lunch traditions in Italy
  • Traditional Italian Christmas lunch menu
  • What to do if you’re invited to an Italian Christmas lunch
  • Tips for hosting your own Italian Christmas lunch

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

Christmas Lunch Traditions in Italy

Aperitivo in Italy - four glasses toasting.

True Italian Christmas revolves all around food. Whether celebrating at home or in a restaurant, at Christmas, Italians meet with their families to eat!

You might ask: what’s the difference between Christmas Day and Christmas Eve meals in Italy? Well, we have different dishes for the two meals:

  • Christmas Eve Dinner focuses on seafood, based on the Catholic tradition of giorno di magra
  • Christmas Day lunch has a meat-based menu

As always, when it comes to Italy and food, what is eaten greatly depends on the region of the country you are in.

Christmas lunch usually starts around noon, when the aperitivo is served, and it goes on all day long.  The last course, the dessert, may be served as late as 5:00 pm!  The long hours of sitting at the table eating are also one of the reasons why many families decide to unwrap gifts before lunch starts – little kids gather around the Christmas tree to see what Babbo Natale (Santa Claus) has brought them over the night.

Christmas Day lunch in Italy is a big feast, with large family groups meeting up to spend time together during the holidays.

Traditional Italian Christmas Lunch Menu

Clementines for sale at a market in Italy.

Christmas meals focus on traditional regional and local food, which means that there is no one traditional Christmas menu for all of Italy. Instead, each family has its own Christmas lunch or dinner menu with regional and local dishes.

I think the best example of a Christmas menu I can give you is the one from my family!

Italian Christmas Lunch – Aperitif (Aperitivo)

Before the proper meal begins, we always have an aperitivo. In my family, we are not big lovers of alcoholic beverages, but there are some staple drinks that we have every single year:

  • Prosecco
  • Aperol spritz, the classic cocktail made from prosecco, aperol, sparkling water, and an orange slice
  • Punch, a cocktail made with rum, punch, orange peel, cinnamon, and anise

Italian Christmas Lunch – Appetizers (Antipasti)

In my family, we love antipasti! We do a proper competition to see who cooks the best appetizer (and yes, the nonne – grandmas – always win!).  You’ll always find these antipasti on our Christmas Day lunch table:

  • Crostini con salmone (slices of smoked salmon served on bread with butter)
  • Bruschette ai funghi (the mushrooms pan-fried with onion and butter and served on grilled bread)
  • Crostini con patè di olive (bread slices with a paste made from black olives)
  • Carciofi fritti (fried artichokes)
  • Olive all’ascolana (fried olives stuffed with meat)
  • Mozzarelle fritte
  • Pizza di formaggio (a savory cake with parmigiano and pecorino cheese)
  • Salumi

Italian Christmas Lunch – First Courses (Primi)

At my house, it’s not Christmas without cappelletti in brodo! My nonna cooks the broth the day before so it can sit overnight and become more flavorful. Cappelletti are very similar to tortellini: the main difference is how the pasta is sealed.

Among the first courses you can find on a Christmas Day table are:

  • tortellini, cappelletti, or agnolotti in brodo
  • lasagne
  • pasta al forno, like cannelloni

Italian Christmas Lunch – Main Courses (Secondi)

The second courses on Christmas are traditionally meat-based, unlike Christmas Eve when Italians usually eat seafood.

The secondi I eat at Christmas with my family are:

  • lesso di cappone (the capon that is cooked in the broth we use for the cappelletti). We eat the capon with mayonnaise or salsa verde
  • angello fritto (fried chop lambs)

In other parts of Italy, you’ll find second courses like:

  • meat bollito (which is similar to lesso: the main difference is that the meat in the bollito is put into the pot once the water is boiling, while in the lesso when the water is still cold)
  • Roast chicken or veal
  • Vitel Tonne (thin slices of roasted veal with a mayonnaise, tuna, and caper sauce)

Italian Christmas Lunch – Vegetable Dishes (Verdure)

Sides are always varied, but three dishes are always present on our Christmas table:

  • spinaci con burro e parmigiano (spinach with butter and parmigiano cheese)
  • insalata russa (prepared by my nonna with cooked potatoes, carrots, peas, and home-made mayonnaise)
  • roasted potatoes

Italian Christmas Lunch – Desserts (Dolci)

The moment when the desserts are put on the table is as exciting as when the appetizers are served! There is one main difference: at this point, we’ve been sitting at the table for hours and we have full bellies. But there is always room for dessert, right?! Typical Italian Christmas Day lunch desserts include:

Attending an Italian Christmas Lunch

If you’re getting ready to attend a Christmas Lunch in Italy, you should consider bringing a gift to the host. As you can imagine, bringing food-related gifts is always much appreciated by Italians. A good-quality bottle of wine or liquor, as well as a Christmas dessert like torrone, are great ways to thank the host for their hospitality. Another gift idea would be to prepare a traditional dish from your home country, something not-too-filling that can be eaten and shared during aperitivo or as an antipasto.

The Christmas Lunch usually starts around noon, but it would be nice to arrive a little earlier so you can help in the kitchen. The host will be very busy preparing all the food, so an extra pair of hands will be much appreciated!

Hosting Italian Christmas Lunch

Tortellini in brodo, a typical Italian dish.
Tortellini in brodo

The best tip I can give you if you want to host a typical Italian Christmas Lunch is to plan ahead! Of course, it’s important to entertain your guests but it’s even more important to have the food ready. Buy your groceries days in advance and meal-prepping as many dishes as possible.

If you are hosting the Christmas Lunch while in Italy, you can buy the ingredients you need from supermarkets, markets, or alimentari. Make sure to order all you need at least a week before the 25th and schedule the pick-up date. If you are abroad, you can order the ingredients from Italian delis or markets.

You should also consider purchasing the desserts or ordering them from a local bakery or supermarket – it will make your life easier!

Preparing the food in advance can be a little of a challenge if you decide to host a Christmas Eve Dinner as well. The trick is to meal-prep everything early in the morning! Make sure to bake the pasta al forno and roast the meat. If you opt for tortellini (or similar) in brodo, this should be cooked the day before to have a superb result!

Upon your guests’ arrival, prepare the aperitivo and place the cocktails and the finger foods on the table so you can welcome them the best way. Once everyone is done with the aperitivo, it’s time for the Christmas lunch. Make a friendly toast with your guests and wish them Buon Natale (Merry Christmas), and then begin serving the courses. Feel free to ask your guests to help you in the kitchen and with bringing the food to the table: Christmas is all about being kind to each other and sharing. Plus, Italians spend Christmas with their families, so it’s only normal that everyone participates in the making of the food and the Christmas table.

After hours spent eating, turn up the music and hit the dance floor (of your own living room). To conclude your Christmas lunch, play some fun games with your guests until your bellies empty out and everyone is ready for dinner!

FAQ

Can you eat at a restaurant on Christmas in Italy?

Restaurants in Italy are open on Christmas Day and have a special Christmas menu for the occasion – often, ordering a la carte is not possible. Many Italians spend their Christmas Day lunch at a restaurant, while Christmas Eve dinner the night before is usually prepared and eaten at home. If you’re visiting Italy and want to eat out on Christmas Day, you’ll need to make a reservation.