December 8th marks the unmistakable start of the Christmas season in Italy. You'll see beautiful touches of Christmas as autumn finishes and winter approaches.
Slowly, they become exquisitely subtle reminders of the genuine essence of the occasion, triggered by smells, sounds, and sights. The sweet aroma of roasting chestnuts on many street corners, the sound of church bells cheerfully clanging, and the eventual evolution of Italian daily life into one that involves carolling, candles, Christmas markets, and holiday cheer are all present when walking around big cities and smaller towns.
Read on to find how Italians celebrate Christmas.
The Day of Immaculate Conception:
The day of the Immaculate Conception, December 8th, is a nationally recognised public holiday in Italy, and it marks the official start of the Christmas season. In terms of religion, this day honours Mary, whose soul was declared immaculate and free of original sin.
Majestic Christmas trees are frequently lit in the main 'piazze,' retail districts and eateries are decorated with ornamental lights, and Christmas markets are in full flow on December 8th. Every bakery and shop begins to overflow with 'panettone' and 'pandoro,' two of Italy's most famous Christmas desserts.
The Novena, or nine days before Christmas, commemorates the Wise Men's trip to baby Jesus. During this time, devout Italians pray a great deal. Italian children may dress up as the Wise Men or other biblical characters in more rural places. Then they walk door to door, singing Christmas carols or reciting Christmas rhymes in exchange for candy or cash.
There are many holiday shows at renowned theatres in major Italian towns, as well as in churches around Italy, in the days leading up to Christmas.
Christmas Markets pop up in the main squares of Italian cities at the beginning of December and usually last into January, attracting both tourists and locals. Shop for handcrafted Christmas items like handmade jewellery and Christmas figurines in the morning or afternoon, and eat scrumptious Christmas themed 'biscotti' and other sweet snacks. Warm your hands with hot 'vin brulé' or mulled wine in the evening. Many Italian Christmas markets are modelled after German marketplaces. Market-goers can sample both fresh Italian and German fare.
In Italy, 'I presepi,' or nativity scenes, are treated very seriously. They are displayed in almost every church and many Italian homes. Even larger ones can be found in the central districts of Italian cities.
The tradition began in Naples, where artisans continue to create the most beautiful nativity scenes to this day. Christmas Alley is a pedestrian lane in Naples' ancient centre known as Via San Gregorio Armeno, which is full with artists hand-crafting every form of 'presepi' figurine you can imagine every December.
If you prefer lovely Christmas lights, head to Salerno, just south of Naples, where the yearly 'Le Luci d'Artista' or The Lights of Artists' event takes place. Everyday after sunset throughout the Christmas season, the city produces dazzling light projects in public squares and streets, allowing visitors to explore a magnificent winter wonderland.
Begin at the 'Villa Comunale' public garden, where you'll see 'Il Giardino Incantato,' or The Enchanted Garden,' a magnificent light work. In Salerno, the 'Lungomare Trieste' along the seaside hosts a month-long Christmas market.
‘Il Giorno di Natale’:
The day following Christmas, 'Il Giorno di Santo Stefano,' or Saint Stephen's Day, is another Italian public holiday, and many stores and restaurants are closed.
Italians pack up their leftovers and head out to spend time with their families and friends. The streets are filled with friends wishing each other a merry holiday season. Many people go to their local church to watch the nativity scene and donate money to charity.
‘La Befana’ on ‘L’Epifania’:
Italians believe that on the eve of Epiphany, January 5th, an elderly lady known as 'La Befana' climbs down their chimneys to fill the stockings of good children and deliver coal to wicked kids.
The Three Wise Men visited the Befana's residence while looking for infant Jesus, according to Italian tradition. She declined when they asked if she wanted to help, claiming she was too preoccupied with chores. She changed her mind after they left, and she now claims to be still looking for baby Jesus. This is why she rewards nice kids with gifts whenever she sees them.
For Italians, the Epiphany, which falls on January 6th, symbolises the end of the holiday season. The Three Wise Men arrived in Bethlehem on this day and visited the infant Jesus.