The Italian Christmas season starts on the Day of the Immaculate Conception of Mary — otherwise known as December 8th — and lasts for around four weeks, until Epiphany. Decorations go up, both in the streets and in homes, and some of the Italian Christmas markets start around this time.
We’ve compiled a list of Italian festive traditions, if you’re looking for some continental inspiration for your Christmas celebrations.
Nativity Crib Scene
The crib scene is an important part of Italian Christmas heritage; it was made popular in the 13th Century by St. Francis of Assisi, who visited Bethlehem to see the stable where Jesus was born.
The Italian city of Naples is world-famous for its crib-making, where they’re known as ‘Presepe Napoletano’ — it even has a whole street dedicated to hand made crib decorations and figures, called the ‘Via San Gregorio Armeno’. The image above is of a Neapolitan crib displayed in Rome. The tradition of displaying cribs in the house became popular in the 16th Century — they’re put out on December 8th and then baby Jesus is added during the evening of Christmas Eve. Neapolitan cribs are famed for displaying a vast array of characters and objects, from waterfalls to famous people.
St Nicholas Day
Celebrated on December 6th, many families commemorate St Nicholas Day. Children write letters to St Nicholas, asking for gifts, and hang up a sock or put out a plate on St Nicholas Day’s eve. Good children will wake up to sweets, nuts and fruits — whereas naughty ones will also get sweets, but shaped like coal.
St Nicholas is the patron Saint of the Italian city of Bari, which is where it’s believed he is buried.
Carols and Bagpipers
During Novena — the eight days before Christmas Day — the streets are filled with carol-singers, singing traditional songs to passers-by. If you’re in Rome, Sicily or southern Italy you might even stumble across bagpipe players — the ‘zampognari’ — who travel to the towns and cities to play their carols.
The Urn of Fate
Another old Italian tradition is the urn of fate. Families gather together and take turns to remove wrapped presents from a large ornamental bowl. This continues until all the presents are distributed. We can only imagine the challenge involved in sourcing presents which are truly family-friendly.
Many Italian families celebrate La Befana, on January 6th. Similar to Santa Claus, La Befana is a witch who flies around the world on broomstick flying in and out of chimneys to fill children’s stockings with candy and gifts. Before she leaves, she also sweeps the floors — representing the metaphorical sweeping away of problems. In return, the families leave her wine and food.
According to Italian legend, Befana was approached by the three wise men a few days before Jesus’s birth. They asked for directions, but she was unable to help. After staying the night, they invited her on the journey but she declined. Later, she realised she wanted to go — but was unable to find them or the infant Jesus. So she still flies around today, looking for them everywhere she goes.