Italian Holiday Traditions

In Italy, the holiday season begins on December 8th, the day of the Immacolata. Traditionally this day is when the presepe (Nativity scene) and the Christmas tree are set up. The holiday season ends on January 6th, Epiphany Day.

Official Italian Holidays:

  • December 8: Immaculate Conception
  • December 25: Natale (Christmas)
  • December 26: Santo Stefano (Saint Stephen)
  • January 1: New Year’s Day
  • January 6: Epiphany

The popular custom of creating the Nativity scene during Christmas originated in Naples in 1600. The presepe (Nativity scene) consists of small, hand-carved figurines set in scenes representing the birth of Jesus. Italian families usually build an entire village consisting of hand-made houses and bridges and shops using cork to create mountains, to which lights are added. A representation of a very old village is brought to life. On December 24th at midnight, the figurine of Jesus is placed in the nativity scene.

On Christmas Eve, here in Naples, Italians enjoy a dinner with the family. No meat is eaten. Instead they have a seafood meal. Dinner is no earlier than 8:30 pm! After dinner, many go to a midnight mass service. Dinner here is the traditional Baccala and eel. The fish mongers are open on the 23rd to buy eels. Live eels (they must be live)! It is important that the fish be so fresh! The types of fish and how they are served does vary between different regions. When people return from Mass, if it’s cold, they have a slice of an Italian Christmas cake called “panettone” with some spumante (champagne). Gifts are exchanged after dinner.

The day after the “light” Christmas Eve dinner, Italians invite their family and friends for a large lunch that usually goes on all of Christmas day. They serve traditional dishes like tagliolini in brodo (noodles in broth), roasts, and traditional desserts. In the evening they play Tombola. Tombola is a traditional Neapolitan game similar to Bingo consisting of a number chart with beans usually used as chips. Not much happens on December 26th. Many Italians eat leftovers and hang out with friends.

New Year’s Eve is celebrated with fireworks all over Italy and often with music and dancing in the main square of a town or city. Naples is known for having one of Italy’s biggest and best fireworks displays. There are many outdoor musical events throughout the city. Some of the best places are Piazza del Plebiscito and along the Lungomare. All around Naples balconies are full of fireworks in conjunction with the official city fireworks that also take place. I’ve heard people say it sounds like a war zone! One this night, it is traditional to have a ‘cenone’ (late, and very rich dinner) with family or friends that usually happens around 9- 10:30/11pm. Italians cook all day to prepare; foods like lasagna, meats, or appetizers. After that, people wait for midnight. They toast with spumante (a version of champagne), and eat lentils with a slice of pig’s trotter. This dish represents money and prosperity. It is unsafe to go walking from 23:30 to 01:00am. People then flock to the streets after 1am for dancing and partying. Everyone wakes up very very late on January 1st.

Every year on January 6 Italians celebrate Epifania, 12 days after Christmas. It represents the visit of the Three Wise men (Re Magi) to baby Jesus. Epifania marks the end of the Christmas season. Another fun legend takes place in the night between the 5th and 6th of January when La Befana visits children. La Befana is an old woman/good witch, a little shabby, but very hardworking and much loved by children. Although her appearance is apparently not so reassuring. She travels on a broom bringing gifts- chocolate, candy, toys- to good children. To those who behaved not so well, however, La Befana will bring coal or onions. I hear Rome actually has a huge celebration for Befana that I would love to see sometime in the future!

Merry Christmas! Happy New Year! Blessings to All!

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Buon Natale! Felice anno nuovo! Benedizioni a tutti!

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Lindsay View All →

Our roots will forever be from here, America, born and raised. Yet, life requires us to move more frequently than we care to count. Whether living stateside or abroad, you can always find us traveling somewhere. We scout out places that you only think you can dream of one day seeing and we seek out those that aren’t found in guidebooks. We then bring them to life here in our travel memos, so hopefully, one day you too can visit them or at least be able to live vicariously through us. This blog isn’t just about crossing off places from a bucket list. It’s about absorbing and learning how other cultures grow and fit into the same world that we do. Life is short and the world is big. Enjoy and get out there!

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