Christmas is a magical moment, and in Italy, we wait for it with keen excitement.
From the mountains up north to the tip of the boot, every city lights up with Christmas decorations, and decorated Christmas trees appear in all the main squares. Inside most Italian homes, you’ll find Christmas trees and lights alongside the ever-present presepe.
Here in Italy, we spend the Christmas holidays with our families, sharing delicious food and unwrapping gifts.
Traveling to Italy for the Holidays? You may want to read
Italy in December
Where to Spend Christmas in Italy – Best Destinations + Things to Keep in Mind
Christmas in Italy for Kids – Traditions & How to Celebrate
What is Christmas Called in Italy?
We don’t call it Christmas here. Instead, we celebrate:
La Concezione Immacolata – The Immaculate Conception
Natale – Christmas
La Vigilia di Natale – Christmas Eve
Il Giorno di Santo Stefano – St. Stephen’s Day, Boxing Day
La Befana / L’Epifania – Epiphany
Timeline of the Italian Christmas Holiday
Christmas is the biggest festivity in Italy (followed closely by Easter), and the holiday season runs from December 8th to January 6th, with Christmas being celebrated from December 24th – 26th.
December 8th in Italy
December 8th is the Immacolata Concezione, the national holiday of the Immaculate Conception. This is traditionally a religious holiday – the celebration of the birth of the Virgin Mary without original sin.
On December 8th, Italians decorate the Christmas tree, and Italians gather in the main squares of large cities to watch the huge Christmas trees being lit. On this day, many Italian Christmas markets are inaugurated, and the Christmas holiday festivals officially begin.
December 8th is one of my favorite days of the Christmas celebrations because I love decorating the Christmas tree and the house with lights and wreaths.
December 24th – 26th in Italy
The actual Italian Christmas celebrations last 3 days, beginning with December 24th – the Vigilia di Natale (Christmas Eve). The Vigilia is observed in different ways depending on where in Italy you are, and the tradition differs from family to family. The two main events during the Vigilia are the Cenone and the midnight mass. Many families, especially in southern Italy, come together on the 24th for the Cenone della Vigilia, a big seafood-based dinner. For many Italians, the Vigilia has the most religious meaning of any day in the Christmas holiday, so they head to midnight mass.
The next day is officially Natale (Christmas)! On the 25th, we meet with our families to sit around the table (for hours!) and enjoy the delicious Christmas food. Christmas day goes on until late while playing board games and unwrapping gifts. Every family has its own Christmas day traditions: at my home, we open the gifts in the morning before Christmas lunch, while other Italians open them on Christmas Eve.
In Italy, December 26th is Il Giorno di Santo Stefano (St. Stephen’s Day). We spend the day with family or friends, eating leftovers and enjoy each other’s company.
January 6th in Italy
Although the three main days of Christmas celebrations end with St. Stephen’s Day, the Christmas holidays in Italy are not over until January 6th, the Giorno della Befana or La Befana (Epiphany Day). During the Epiphany, children wait for the Befana, an old witch-like woman who arrives on a broomstick to fill the stockings with sweets, chocolate, or a lump of coal for those who have been misbehaving. The old Befana is a true icon in Italy!
We love celebrating the Epifania (Epiphany) by attending festivals dedicated to the Befana, where women dress up as the good witch and go around the town’s streets giving children candies while singing.
Italian Christmas Vacations
Christmas in Italy is all about family and spending time with loved ones. Given that it is a national holiday, schools are closed, and most people have time off from work. Children are out of school from a few days before Christmas until after the Giorno della Befana.
Let’s get into our 12 Christmas traditions that we celebrate in Italy today:
Presepi – Italian Nativity Scenes
If you enter an Italian household during the Christmas holidays, you will see the Christmas tree and the presepe! The nativity scene is a big part of the Christmas tradition in Italy: decorating the presepe with the little hand-made figurines of the holy family is a must!
On Christmas Eve (at midnight), baby Jesus appears in the manger, and on January 6th, the presepe is completed by adding the stella cadente (shooting star) and the re magi (three wise men).
In Italy we like the presepi so much that there are living nativity scenes (presepi viventi) in many cities – people dress in full costume to recreate and act the events of the eve of Jesus’s birth.
Fun Fact: In my region, Le Marche, we have the world’s largest presepe vivente in the small village of Genga.
Read more about Presepe – The Italian Nativity Scene + Where To See Them!
Christmas Trees in Italy
Putting the Christmas tree up on December 8th is an important tradition throughout Italy. The trees are usually fake, but more and more real trees are popping up in grocery stores and on city street corners.
Once the lights are set, children have fun hanging the ornaments.
The Christmas tree topper is usually a star (representing the comet that signed the location of baby Jesus to the Three Kings), an angel (Gabriel, the Annunciation messenger), or a puntale (a decorated pointy top).
The rest of the Christmas decorations vary from family to family: Christmas balls, garlands, figurines – every Christmas tree is unique.
At my home, we decide the color of the Christmas balls and then decorate the whole house to match!
Italian Christmas Markets
Beginning on December 8th, the mercatini di natale (Christmas markets) pop up in many squares throughout Italy, although our country’s best Christmas markets are the ones in South Tyrol, located near the Austrian border.
The Christmas markets in Italy have the same look as the traditional Austrian ones: wooden huts packed with objects made by local artisans, from Christmas decorations to specific local crafts. A must when visiting a mercatino di natale is drinking vin brulè (mulled wine) and eating local delicacies.
Celebrating with Family on Christmas
The central tradition of Italian Christmas is spending it with the family. We also have a saying about it: ‘Natale con i tuoi, capodanno con chi vuoi,’ which means that if you spend Christmas with your parents (respecting tradition), you are allowed to meet up with whoever you want for New Year’s Eve!
Christmas is celebrated with family – unwrapping gifts, playing board games (mainly card games such as burraco), and of course, eating!
Learn about our Traditional Italian Christmas Day Lunch!
Traditional Italian Christmas Foods
Italian Christmas foods vary by region and family. Some dishes you may find on the Italian tables at Christmas:
- Seafood (baccalà, spaghetti alle vongole, spaghetti al nero di seppia, orata al forno, capitone in umido)
- Pasta dishes (tortellini in brodo, agnolotti, lasagne, pasta al forno)
- Meat dishes (vitello o pollo arrosto, brodo di cappone)
- Desserts (pandoro, panettone, torrone, panforte, struffoli)
Attending Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve
A Christmas tradition that used to be incredibly important was to attend the midnight mass at the local church on Christmas Eve. Many Italians still respect this tradition, but fewer and fewer people (especially the younger generations) are religious in the traditional sense. My grandmas still attend the midnight mass, but neither my siblings nor I have ever gone.
If you happen to be in Rome during Christmas, don’t miss the opportunity to attend the midnight mass officiated by the Pope in Vatican City. The event is also televised in St. Peter’s Square for those who don’t manage to get into the basilica to see the Pope and participate in the mass up close.
Exchanging Christmas Gifts
A central part of the Italian Christmas tradition is exchanging gifts. Usually, the parents and grandparents buy gifts for the children (or teens) and each other. In my family, my siblings and I give gifts to our parents, but this is not very common.
Among friends, gifts are exchanged as well, but this practice can change among people. For example, with my group of friends, we meet up for an aperitivo or dinner on the 27th and exchange small gifts.
Some of the most traditional gifts are cesti di natale, gift baskets filled with local and high-quality food items, such as wines, salumi, truffles, panettoni, and torroni. These baskets are a perfect gift for co-workers or acquaintances.
Properly wrapping the gifts is an important aspect of giving a gift in Italy. Most shops in Italy will professionally wrap the gifts for you if you ask. It’s also common to place the gifts in gift bags from the shop they bought the item from.
Eating Seafood on Christmas Eve
Seafood is a must on Christmas Eve. It follows the religious tradition of the giorno di magro, a day where you are supposed to eat lean and purify your body as a sign of respect and devotion.
During the vigilia di natale, we eat a variety of fish dishes which vary from region to region. Appetizers include smoked salmon crostini, scallops au gratin, and octopus salad. For the main dish, you can find fried or stewed cod, roast sea bream, or stewed eel. The Italian Christmas Eve table will always have pasta: spaghetti with clams or risotto with a mix of seafood are among the delicacies we eat during the cenone della vigilia.
Learn more about Authentic Christmas Eve Dinner in Italy!
Babbo Natale – Italy’s Santa Claus
In Italy, the gifts are brought by Babbo Natale (Santa Claus), who arrives on a sled and enters the home through the chimney or window.
Children can write letters to Babbo Natale or speak to him directly at a shopping mall, Christmas market, or Christmas event.
Read more about Babbo Natale – Italy’s Santa Claus!
Christmas Lights and Decorations in Italy
Christmas is all about the atmosphere, and there is no better way to make a place jolly than putting up Christmas lights and decorations. From as early as mid-November, the center of Italy’s towns and cities lights up with Christmas lights.
While the cities are fully decorated with lights, you will find fewer Christmas lights in the houses: both electricity and the actual strings of lights are expensive in Italy, and we don’t want to break the bank because of Christmas! So, you will find the gardens and balconies poorly decorated (if compared to the US, at least), but inside the home, you will never see a Christmas tree without the lights on!
Italian Children Celebrate Christmas at School
Christmas is a big holiday in Italy, so it is celebrated in kindergarten and primary school. With the Christmas holidays approaching, children craft ornaments and decorations that are then displayed at the school (or brought home). Schools also take the occasion to teach students how to be nicer to their peers and about the importance of worldwide peace.
Another traditional way Christmas is celebrated in Italian schools is with a Christmas recital just before the Christmas holidays begin.
Saving the Stockings for La Befana
Befana Day is a fundamental part of the Christmas holidays in Italy. On January 6th, La Befana fills stockings with candy for the children on the good list and coal for the naughty children.
The Befana doesn’t only bring gifts to kids. The legends say that she would also sweep the floor to sweep away the previous year’s problems and leave the family with a fresh slate to welcome the new year.
Christmas in Italy Vocabulary
addobbi natalizi – Christmas decorations
albero di natale – Christmas tree
Babbo Natale – Santa Claus
canzoni di natale – Christmas carols
pranzo di natale – Christmas lunch
cenone della Vigilia – Christmas Eve dinner
la messa della Vigilia – midnight mass
regali – gifts
presepe – nativity scene
i re magi – the three wise kings
Buon Natale! – Merry Christmas!
Buone Feste! – Happy Holidays!
Ti auguro un Buon Natale – I wish you a Merry Christmas
Giorno dell’Epifania – Epiphany Day
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about our Christmas traditions here in Italy! Are they similar to yours?