Visiting Italy during the Christmas season offers two bonuses: you’ll avoid the high summer season tourist crowds and you’ll get to see the country decked out in all its holiday finery. The Christmas season in Italy starts from 8th December, the date of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, and lasts until 6th January, the day of the Epiphany.
For Italians, Christmas celebrations focus on the family; most people head to their hometowns to celebrate the festivities together with their loved ones. Meanwhile, light displays and Christmas markets pop up throughout the country. A festive atmosphere can be found in every corner of the country. There are a few areas, however, that seem to take the holidays to another level.
From Rome to Milan, passing through Gubbio and Naples, just to name a few, you can admire some of the most beautiful Christmas decorations in Italy. Here are some suggestions for the best places to spend Christmas in Italy together with the most popular traditions of the country during the most magical time of the year.
The presepe is the tradition of Christmas nativity scene displays, found in most cities and homes in Italy. The word refers specifically to the crib, first created by Saint Francis of Assisi in 1223 AD. In Rome, the annual 100 Presepi exhibition displays about 200 nativity scenes from artists across Italy and other countries. Rome also houses the Museo del Presepio “Angelo Stefanucci”, which displays over 3000 presepi, manufactured with a wide range of materials including plaster, glass, even eggshell, and a life-size nativity scene is displayed annually in Saint Peter’s Square.
The presepe at Santa Maria Maggiore is said to be the oldest permanent nativity scene, carved in marble by Arnolfo di Cambio in the late 13th century. In Florence, there is a life-size presepe outside the Duomo, made in terracotta by an artisan of Impruneta. The monastery of San Martino in Naples houses a unique collection of presepe figurines unlike any other collection and is well worth a visit.
New Year’s Eve
New Year’s Eve coincides with the “Festa di San Silvestro” in Italy, and is traditionally a time to both literally and figuratively dispose of the past. At midnight, people throw kitchenware, appliances, clothes, and furniture out of their windows onto the street, a tradition most common in the southern part of the country. The day is celebrated with a big dinner called “il Cenone”, featuring lentils right after midnight; the money shaped food is thought to bring good luck.
A slightly less expected tradition in Italy is the wearing of red underwear, representing the medieval belief that red wards off sickness and bad luck. Italians are so passionate about this tradition that red underwear can be bought all across town, and if a friend hears you do not have any, they will likely gift you some! Of course, fireworks, music, dancing, spumante, prosecco, and festive spirit are equally important.
Families most often exchange gifts on the day of the Epiphany (though this varies by region), and also host another large meal. Children are then visited by La Befana, a woman with a crooked nose and broomstick. Despite her appearance, La Befana is not a witch; she visits at night, bringing along stockings filled with sweets. Originally, she would bring oranges and nuts to good children, and coal to children that behaved badly. She is not to be confused with Babbo Natale, the Italian equivalent of Santa Claus: La Befana forgoes the milk and cookies, opting instead for a hearty bottle of red wine as her treat.
Traditionally, to prepare and purify their bodies, Italian Catholics forgo meat on “La Vigilia” (Christmas Eve) before heading to midnight Mass. Then, on Christmas Day, families host a large lunch, which typically lasts all day, featuring traditional dishes like pasta in brodo (pasta in broth) and panettone, a towering round-shaped sweet bread loaded with raisins and sometimes with candied fruit too.
Many Italian cities celebrate the holidays with various initiatives: thanks to illuminations and Christmas trees full of coloured lights, the streets are filled with the typical festive atmosphere.
Gubbio and the largest Christmas tree in the world
In Umbria, the town of Gubbio lights up with magic with the largest Christmas tree in the world. This special Christmas tree is made up of over 800 luminous bodies scattered along the slopes of Mount Ingino, powered by renewable sources. The largest Christmas tree in the world, more than 650 meters high, is illuminated as usual on the eve of the Immaculate Conception.
Rome & Vatican City
Heading to Rome over Christmas is probably the best choice: in addition to the festivities in Rome itself, you also have Vatican City‘s celebrations. It’s like getting two cities’ worth of holiday in one spot. At the Vatican, the Pope delivers a Christmas Eve midnight mass. There’s a huge Christmas tree in St. Peter’s Square and a life-sized Nativity scene in front of the basilica.
Even if you’re not lucky enough to witness snow falling on the canals and gondolas, Venetians know how to ward off the chill with hot spiced wine and other holiday treats, sold in the Christmas markets. No matter how old you are, you’re bound to be charmed by the figure of Santa Claus arriving by gondola to distribute goodies, and Christmas Eve mass held in St. Mark’s Basilica is enough to make any trip to Venice worthwhile.
Naples is home to a street that can rightfully be called “Christmas Alley” year-round. This city is the epicentre of Italy’s Nativity scene tradition, the artisan shops along Via San Gregorio Armeno that craft the myriad figurines that inhabit them are open all year long. The figurines range from the expected (holy family and shepherds) to the regional (pizza makers) to the topical (current political or sports personalities).
For a location with loads of Italian Christmas traditions and much milder weather, head south to Sicily. Second only to the Neapolitans in terms of their affection for the Nativity scene, Sicilians erect elaborate Nativities everywhere (from public squares to churches and private homes), including a living Nativity in a cave near Trapani. In other words, locals dress up and re-enact the Nativity daily from Christmas Eve through the whole festive season.
Spend Christmas in the Trentino-Alto Adige and you’ll have snowy winter scenery straight out of a postcard while you sip mulled wine in the market squares. This area is also a good base if you want to take day trips into Venice or Verona.
Daniela De Luca is CEO at Home in Italy. Home in Italy is a luxury villa rental company offering high end holiday villa experiences throughout the best regions of Italy since 1993.