Did you know that in Italy Christmas has a beginning and an end? And what do Italians do on Christmas Eve and on December 25th? When do the children open their presents? In this article we will tell you about how Christmas is celebrated and Italian Christmas traditions.
The beginning: Dezember 8, the Immacolata
Foto di Francesco Fotia
In Italy, Christmas has an official “opening date”: December 8! This is a holiday in Italy, the Festa dell’Immacolata Concezione (Day of the Immaculate Conception). On this day the whole country is decorated. Christmas lights are installed, Christmas trees and nativity scenes are set up. The Christmas crib (ital. Presepe) is an absolute must in Italy! However, the Child Jesus is only placed in it on Christmas Eve, at midnight, while the three kings are not placed until January 6, Epiphany. Since December 8 is a public holiday and the whole family does not work or have to go to school, this holiday is quite suitable for decorating the Christmas tree together. In Rome on this day the statue of the Immacolata of Piazza Mignanelli, next to Piazza di Spagna, is venerated with flowers.
An exception is Milan: the magic of Christmas begins the day before, on December 7, when Sant’Ambrogio is celebrated.
The anticipation: December 24, la Vigilia di Natale
What do Italians do on Christmas Eve? A few years ago there was a clear division in Italy: in central and southern Italy it was traditional to make the Cenone della Vigilia, a big Christmas Eve dinner with the whole family, while in the north it was more typical doing the Pranzo di Natale, the Christmas lunch on December 25. Nowadays, both traditions can be found all over Italy. So many Italians do the Cenone della Vigilia on Christmas Eve with the family and eat a lot! Those who do not make the Cenone on December 24, but prefer the Pranzo the next day, often meet with friends on Christmas Eve.
But very important for everyone is the Midnight Mass. At midnight you take part in a solemn mass and afterwards you meet with the whole community in the square to exchange Christmas wishes, drink mulled wine or a hot chocolate and eat a piece of panettone. This is always a nice opportunity to meet with everyone else, especially in smaller villages, whether you are a strong believer or not. After midnight mass, gifts are exchanged, but only among adults. For children it would be a little late, so they go to bed earlier and open the presents on December 25, Christmas morning. In fact, Santa Claus comes at night while all the children are sleeping! By the way, don’t forget to leave something for Santa and his reindeer to make his journey through the world more enjoyable: a few cookies and a glass of milk on the fireplace, table or windowsill are quite common. In the past, and still in more religious families, Baby Jesus brings the presents.
It's Christmas! December 25, Natale
Wirestock / Freepik
On December 25 is finally Christmas, Natale! You get up early to open the presents with the children, which magically appeared during the night. Sometimes Santa leaves even traces of snow on the ground and the cookies and milk are gone of course!
After all the presents are opened, the whole family gathers for il pranzo di Natale, which is very abundant and can last for hours! After all, Christmas is the feast of the family and you spend the whole day together. After a very long lunch, we often take a nice walk together to digest the food and in the evening we eat something together again. A typical Christmas activity for the family is the Tombola: the Italian version of bingo. Of course there is also December 26, Santo Stefano. On this day we will of course continue to eat!
The end of Christmas time: January 6, the Epifania
January 6, l’Epifania (Epiphany), is the last day of Christmas. In the morning, the children find a nice surprise: the Befana, an old witch, flew across the country on her broom in the night between the 5th and 6th of January, filling the socks by the fireplace, which the children had hung up the day before, with sweets and little presents. But beware: children who were not well-behaved will get coal! Actually, the good children also get coal, because the Befana’s sweet coal is really tasty!
Here is a very famous children’s song:
La Befana vien di notte
con le scarpe tutte rotte
col cappello alla romana
viva viva La Befana.
(The Befana comes at night – with completely worn-out shoes – with a hat in roman style – long live the Befana)
Afterwards you go to Epiphany Mass and then you meet again with your family for lunch to enjoy the last day of Christmas together. There is no typical dish for this, but there are various traditional desserts, depending on the region. For example, it is typical in Lombardy, especially in the province of Varese, where our Ellie comes from, to eat the Cammello: it is a simple pastry made of puff pastry, shaped like a camel, in memory of the Three Kings who came to Jesus on camels.
After having eaten, all the Christmas decorations, the nativity scene and the Christmas tree are taken down. Christmas is over and the next day school starts again. As the saying goes:
L’Epifania, tutte le feste si porta via!
(The Epiphany takes all holidays away!)