You would probably guess that Christmas in Italy is a big deal – and you’d be right. It’s not actually the biggest holiday on the Italian calendar, but it’s definitely one of them. Traveling in Italy during the Christmas season can be magical, and yet it’s not without its complications. Here’s a look at what a Italian Christmas is like, and what you need to know as a visitor.
The Italian word for Christmas is “Natale” (pronounced nah|TAH|leh). There’s a “Father Christmas” character in Italy, too, although he’s called “Babbo Natale,” and he’s not the one who leaves gifts for kids in stockings. That’s a witch who arrives in early January, not late December. But I’ll get to her later.
For now, the main thing you need to know is that for Italians, Christmas is primarily a family-oriented holiday. There are some public celebrations, to be sure, but much of what makes Christmas special in Italy is private. Of course, this doesn’t mean you can’t completely enjoy your Italy trip at Christmas, even if you aren’t adopted by an Italian family. It just means you’ll need to be prepared for some slight changes in atmosphere.
Today, you will see evergreen trees strung with lights in many an Italian piazza, but that’s an imported tradition. The far more ubiquitous Christmas decoration in Italy is the nativity scene, called “presepio” (pre|ZEHP|yoh) or “presepe” (pre|ZEHP|yeh) in Italian. These can be small enough to fit in a shop window or even life-sized. Some towns have living nativities in front of major churches during the holiday season. Naples is world-famous for the production of presepi figurines and displays – so much so that one street with many presepi craftsmen is known informally as “Christmas Alley.”
Christmas markets abound in the weeks leading up to the holiday, and some continue for a week or so afterward. German markets are some of the best known, and many of Italy’s Christmas markets have a German flavor to them – especially the ones in the regions closest to the Austrian border. These markets, often found in a city’s main piazza, are excellent places to pick up souvenirs, last-minute gifts, or Italian holiday treats.
As mentioned, in Italy there is a character who looks like what many of us know as Santa Claus, but he’s called Babbo Natale. But he’s not the one who brings Christmas gifts, so he’s not a major figure in Italian Christmas stories. Instead, there is an old witch called “La Befana” (lah beh|FAH|nah) who rides a broomstick around the country on the night of January 5th (the day before the Epiphany) depositing gifts in stockings children leave out for her. The story of La Befana is that she claimed she was too busy to join the Three Wise Men as they made their way to see the Baby Jesus, and when she finally tried to get to the manger she got lost. Ever since, she is said to leave gifts for every child the night before Epiphany, hoping that one of them might be the Baby Jesus.
The Christmas season is a time for special dishes in Italy, many of which are sweet. Panettone (pah|net|TOH|neh) is a light and airy sweet bread studded with candied fruit. These often adorn bakery windows leading up the holiday, wrapped in colorful cellophane and ribbons. Pan d’oro (pan DOH|roh) is another sweet bread, this one missing the candied fruit but adding a dusting of powdered sugar. There are also regional deep-fried desserts, including struffoli (stroo|FOH|lee) in Naples. The Christmas Eve dinner typically includes fish instead of meat, while the Christmas Day meal is entirely focused on meat.
With all of the benefits of seeing Italy during its festive Christmas season, there are some troublesome elements to a Christmas visit, too.
Christmas is in the midst of Italy’s winter, which would make you think it’s part of the low season and therefore a cheap time to visit and a good time to avoid crowds. Think again. Yes, it’s the low season, but because the holiday is such a big draw, there’s a spike in low season prices and crowds around Christmas. It’s not to high season levels, but it’s something to be aware of – especially if you’re headed to traditionally popular places to visit at Christmas, such as Rome and Vatican City. You’ll want to book your accommodation well in advance to secure the best deals.
Schedules for both attractions and transportation can be limited or even non-existent on Christmas. Holidays in Italy don’t shut down transportation entirely, but they do alter the schedules – sometimes dramatically. And if there are fewer trains running on a given day, that means they’re likely to be more crowded, too. Christmas Day may be one of the few days even major attractions are closed, not to mention shops and restaurants. You would be smart to craft your itinerary so your travel days are before or after Christmas Day, but not on it. And be sure to look up what attractions you might want to visit to see if they’re closed on Christmas so you can plan accordingly. There are some guided tours available specifically on Christmas Day that you can book in advance, so you’ll at least know how part of your day will be spent.
Even if you’re not religious, you might want to seek out a Christmas service. The major churches are apt to be crowded, but there are usually multiple churches in even small towns, so you should be able to find a seat in one of them. You can ask at the tourist information office if you want to find a service in your native language, too. Ask what other holiday festivities are on the schedule while you’re there, including any processions or bonfires that you might attend.
Note that if you’ve got your heart set on seeing the Pope give Christmas Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica, you’re not the only one. Tickets to the Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve are available for free, but you’ve got to plan way ahead – we’re talking months – in order to have even a small chance of securing one. On the bright side, even if you don’t get a ticket, you can join the throngs in St. Peter’s Square to watch the whole thing broadcast live on enormous screens.