8 Christmas Customs You’ll Only Find in Italy
Christmas in Italy is as diverse as the country itself. In Italy, Christmas runs from December 8th (the Feast of the Immaculate Conception) to January 6th (the Epiphany). It’s a season when Italians spend time with their families, shop at outdoor markets and nibble on panettone.
Below, you’ll find an explanation of the curious customs behind Italians’ Christmas traditions — including flying donkeys and generous witches!
Italian Christmas Tradition #8: Christmas Markets
Chestnuts roast on a fire.Torrone tempts your taste buds. Strings of lights blink overhead. Where are you? In a mercatino di Natale or one of Italy’s outdoor Christmas markets. Throughout November and December, towns big and small are home to outdoor bazaars during Christmas in Italy — selling tempting treats like candied nuts, carved ornaments, and local toys. It’s one of the country’s most beloved Italian Christmas traditions.
Italian Christmas Tradition #7: La Befana
Italian kids in many areas eagerly await the arrival of La Befana. According to Italian Christmas traditions, La Befana is an old woman, riding a broom, who delivers gifts. Legend has it that she lost her way following the Three Wise Men and has been handing out presents ever since. She’s Italy’s version of the good witch, delivering sweets and gifts to well-behaved children. Naughty kids, on the other hand, can expect lumps of coal left in their stockings.
Italian Christmas Tradition #6: Italy’s Living Nativities
In Italy’s South, Christmas comes to life – quite literally – with the presepi viventi or Living Nativity. Locals reenact the biblical nativity scene – including mooing and braying livestock. Donning traditional clothing, residents dress up as Mary, Joseph, the Three Wise Men, Shepherds and the Angels. It’s said that St. Francis of Assisi founded the tradition of living nativities in 1223. Since then, this Italian Christmas tradition has spread across the peninsula — especially in regions like Puglia, Campania and Sicily.
Italian Christmas Tradition #5: Naples’ Carved “Presepi”
Throughout Italy’s South, presepi or manger scenes rule the Christmas season. In the city of Naples, the Via San Gregorio Armeno is lined with hand-crafted creches. Made painstakingly by artisans, the figurines represent traditional village life in Southern Italy. Pedestrians walk up and down the “Christmas alley” here, popping into shops to see craftsmen at work on manger scenes. Over 500,000 visitors tour this street each year to take in the festive atmosphere of this regional Italian Christamas tradition.
Italian Christmas Tradition #4: St. Lucy and Her Flying Donkey
In some Northern Italian areas, especially in parts of Lombardy and the Veneto, St. Lucy is said to bring gifts each December 13th. Accompanied by her faithful flying donkey, St. Lucy rewards good children and gives coal to the cattivi (naughty) kids.
To celebrate her arrival, children often leave a carrot out for her donkey and coffee for St. Lucy. In the city of Verona, the townspeople erect a huge Christmas market in honor of Santa Lucia.
Italian Christmas Tradition #3: Christmas at the Vatican
Christmas in Italy isn’t just folk customs and mounds of food — for many Italians, it’s a pious celebration. Vatican City in Rome boasts numerous Christmas-themed religious events and attractions — including the papal midnight mass (Christmas Eve) and a giant fir tree hoisted high in St. Peters Square. Typically, the tree is accompanied by a giant nativity scene — designed by a cohort of international artists.
Italian Christmas Tradition #2: Venice’s Christmas Village
Each December, one of Venice’s most scenic squares — Campo Santo Stefano — morphs into a magical Christmas village. Strolling this stone piazza, you’ll zigzag through a maze of holiday-themed stalls and vendors — including artisans selling Venetian handicrafts. Food-loving travelers can relish festive treats like Venetian panettone or chewy torrone (nougat).
Italian Christmas Tradition #1: Gubbio’s Christmas Tree
Want to feel in awe of Christmas? You’ll need to visit Umbria’s hillside gem of Gubbio then. Here, you can go straight to Monte Ingino — the rocky slope overlooking Gubbio.
On its slope, over 460 lights are strung together to evoke the “world’s largest Christmas tree.” In 2017, the tree “was lit” from outer space by the Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli. The tree design illuminates over 2,133 feet of the mountain side — talk about one giant Italian Christmas tradition!
Understanding Christmas Traditions in Italy
Christmas in Italy is unlike any other season. To read more about Italian Christmas traditions, check out Italy travel experts’ tips in the blog “3 Days of Christmas in Italy’s Alps.”
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