Christmas in Italy - Piazza Navona in Rome
Christmas in Italy – Piazza Navona in Rome     Image Source

If’s tour of Christmas traditions around the world had a “must-see” port of call, then it almost certainly would be Italy.  Wonderful Christmas in Italy!

After all, this is the home of the Vatican – the very pulse, if not the heart and soul, of the Roman Catholic Church. Thousands of Italians and people across the world make a pilgrimage there to celebrate Christmas in Italy or to hear the pope’s Christmas day message at St. Peter’s Basilica.

As it stands aglow with Advent candles, garland and poinsettias, the site of St. Peter’s crucifixion is also the stage for multiple Nativity scenes, or presepios, which St. Francis is credited with elevating to a national fixture of prayer and worship.

Sample presepio in Via San Gregorio Armeno, Naples.
Sample presepio in Via San Gregorio Armeno, Naples.  Image Source

San Francesco, as Italians call him, visited Bethlehem and the actual stable where Jesus was believed to have been born. With this imagery in mind, he was able to return to Italy and help Italian families recreate the scene – and tell the story of Jesus’ birth – with rich clarity and detail.

Today, the city of Naples remains especially famous for its presepios. An entire street of nativity makers, called the Via San Gregorio Armeno, also is home to the largest Nativity scene in the world, with more than 600 people, animals and other figures on display.

Christmas in Italy: A Celebration of Food

Many traditional Italian families still observe the Feast of Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve. But the banning of meat ends on Christmas Day, when Italians’ world-famous gustatory habits are on full display. Exactly what is on the menu largely depends on the region, for culinary experts break down Italy into 20 distinct culinary “districts.” In general, the food is generally heavier in northern Italy and spicier and sweeter in the south.

Still, there are commonalities, for Christmas in Italy wouldn’t be complete for most families without capon, salumi calabresi — a cold cut tray consisting of a variety of sweet and spicy meats and cheeses  — and bruschetta con pomodori, or bruschetta with sun-dried tomatoes. For dessert, many Italians eagerly slice into panettone, a light and buttery fruitcake, before topping off the feast with a splash of espresso or cappuccino.

After a visit from Babbo Natale, or Father Christmas, children also receive gifts on Three Kings Day, or January 6. But this time, the gift-giver is a witch-like character known as La Befana, or Epifania, as she also is known.

Christmas in Italy - BefaneLegend has it that the three wise men asked La Befana to accompany them on their journey to visit the newborn Christ child in Bethlehem, but she declined. By the time she changed her mind and chased after them, she was too late; she couldn’t find the trio anywhere. To compensate for her absence, she now visits and leaves gifts for other children to mark Christmas in Italy.

In some parts of the country, children dress up as La Befana and go door to door, where they receive candy or small gifts. At the end of the day, figures of her are burned in a bonfire that represents a cleansing, of sorts – a desire to say goodbye to the previous year and greet the new one, Italian style.

Read the full story of Christmas in Italy, perhaps over a mug of steaming cappuccino, before sharing it with your family and friends on Facebook or Twitter. Then you’ll understand why we call it a “must-see” destination on our fascinating global tour.

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