When you visit a country as magical as Italy, it’s only natural to want to take some of the magic home with you. Fortunately, many of the finest Italian traditions can be enjoyed while on your tours through the country and then you can continue to show a bit of Italian festivity at home every year – whether you’re in Italy or not!
The Christmas Season
While Americans may be used to Christmas starting in November and lasting through the 25th, the holiday season in Italy starts just shy of December 25th and lasts through January 6. The days of celebration extend from Christmas Eve through Epiphany, or what seems to correspond to the arrival of the wise men in the Biblical tale of Christmas. It’s easy to extend your holiday season through the Italian days – just keep your tree up and enjoy the season for two weeks longer than your neighbors!
Gift on Epiphany
Babbo Natale might bring a few presents to well-behaved children on Christmas Day, but Epiphany is the real gift giving occasion in Italy. On the day that the Wise Men bestowed gifts on Mary and Jesus, Italians remember the momentous occasion by bestowing gifts on friends and family members. The stockings are even filled on January 6th rather than December 25th. Santa is a fringe character in Italy. There you’ll find La Befana fills stockings with surprise treats.
While there are some lights and other holiday decorations, the primary decoration for Italian families during the Christmas season are the nativity scenes or presepi. Virtually every household has a presepe and there are many decorating the common areas of cities and towns as well. Every church displays a presepe as well. Many of the decorations start to appear after December 8th, the Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception, and the century-old tradition of the presepi continues still today.
While Epiphany is reserved for gift giving, Christmas is celebrated as a religious holiday. A meatless dinner is eaten on Christmas eve with large amounts of family. A living nativity play or scene is then enacted either at home or in a church and the entire family then attends a midnight mass. Customs differ in the various areas of Italy. You can expect bonfires, a dinner with seven fish or other traditions in different corners of the country. On Christmas day, the main dish will almost certainly be a meat dish.