There really isn’t a best time to visit Italy, but if we had to pick the most special time, it would have to be Christmas. Italy is such a family-orientated place that the whole country seems to be bubbling with its traditions for those chilly two weeks between December 25 and January 6. If you are lucky enough to spend Christmas in Italy, you’ll be surrounded by much that is familiar – decorations, lights, gifting, feasting – but also much that is not.
The Food and Characters you’ll find during your Christmas in Italy
Some of the major differences between American and Italian homes at Christmas time is in the decorations. Sure, there are beautiful lights strung up everywhere—though maybe with less concentration than their American counterparts—especially in the old centers of towns, but Santa Claus and his reindeer are rarely seen in windows or hanging from trees. Instead, in Italy, the focus of decoration is on the nativity scene, which is called presepe in Italian. You’ll see these just about everywhere and in every size from life-size to miniature.
After the presepe, the next most recognizable character you’ll see around Italy in the time surrounding Christmas is La Befana, who is strangely, an old witch! Though she doesn’t sound very Christmassy, La Befana has a very long history in Italy. She rides a broomstick, wears a black shawl, and is dirty from tumbling down chimneys. Her prevalence has much to do with being the purveyor of gifts. On the Eve of Epiphany (January 5) she flies around and fills children’s socks with candy if they were good or a lump of coal if they were bad.
Sweet Treats for an Italian Christmas
Being in Italy at Christmas time means you’ll definitely have more than one chance to try the many delicacies eaten only at this time of year. Though there are many regional specialties, many treats and traditions are the same throughout the country. All around Italy the Christmas Eve meal is traditionally without meat, which means that most Italians eat fish. Christmas Day dinner features meat and is a long drawn out affair usually carried on with games of cards. On New Years Eve it’s good luck to eat lentils. Supposedly it’ll help you make more money in the new year.
Best of all are the Christmas sweets! Panettone and pandoro are eaten throughout the country. They are big sweet bread-like cakes. The pandoro is most often served plain, while the panettone can be found plain, with dried fruits or chocolate inside. Then there’s torrone, a chewy nougat filled with nuts. Sometimes instead of a large bar of torrone, you can find large bars of chocolate filled with nuts instead.
Now that you know what delights to expect when visiting Italy at Christmas, you have to decide what city you would like to be in. Remember most monuments and shops will be closed during Christmas Eve and day, New Years Day, and the Epiphany. It’s best not to travel during these days, as public transport runs on a slow holiday schedule.
Christmas in Italy’s Cities
Rome: The biggest event in Rome during Christmas is midnight mass in St Peter’s Basilica, but this isn’t an event you can just show up for and be allowed in. Make sure you reserve your tickets ahead of time, otherwise you’ll be left out in the cold with the crowds watching on big screens. Then there’s the famous Christmas Market in Piazza Navona. Filled with stands selling food, candy, presepi, and figurines of La Befana, in whose honor the whole market exists.
If you want to see one hundred artiginal presepi then go to Sala del Bramante near the Piazza del Popolo. Some of them are just amazing! Especially the super fragile figures carved into small spaces.
Christmas trees, rarely seen glowing in windows, are popular in Rome’s big squares. You’ll find huge Christmas trees in Saint Peter’s Square, Piazza Venezia and, as you can see from the photograph above, next to the Colosseum! For those who celebrate Hanukkah, there is a menorah lighting nightly at Piazza Barberini. Then of course there are the lights hung up between the streets. Those flooding down the Via del Corso are always a wonderful sight to behold.
Naples: Rome was just a starter course when you compare it to the number of nativity scenes on display throughout Naples. Head to the churches to see the most elaborate ones, and then there’s Christmas Alley in Via San Gregorio Armeno. Though you can buy figures for your very own presepe all year round, it’s the Christmas season that really gets things going. Don’t think that you’ll find only wise men and Marys here though. The Neapolitans also like to spice up their presepi with scenes from their daily lives and celebrities that are more than unusual.
Naples’ true specialty at Christmas comes on Christmas Eve with the cena della vigilia di Natale that serves up a seafood feast of fish, clams, and eels.
Torino: Talk about a feast for the eyes! During the month before Christmas, Turin comes alive with light-art installations, called Luci d’Artista, or lights of the artist. Wonderfully designed lights and ornaments are everywhere, provoking amazement and surprise around every corner. On top of all this Christmas sparkle there’s the Christmas Market which includes more than just stalls selling artiginale crafts from around Italy, though that would definitely be enough!
And one more thing before you go, Merry Christmas in Italian is Buon Natale!
Would you like to spend this Christmas in Italy? Contact us today and we’ll help you make it happen!