Meet Our Locals: Christmas Traditions Around Italy
We hope you enjoy reading about Christmas traditions from our local guides featuring delicious food, rituals, and celebrations that are all characteristic of the holiday season in Italy.
Marco, Guide from Florence, Tuscany
Marco’s family upholds the Italian tradition of a meatless dinner on Christmas Eve. In the Roman Catholic Church, Christmas Eve is considered a “giorno di magro” or a “lean day”, during which one should abstain from eating meat. This custom is diffused throughout the country and a Christmas Eve dinner in Italy frequently consists of fish and vegetables. In some parts of Italy, seafood is featured in every course of the dinner, while in others a variety of meatless ingredients are incorporated into the meal.
Tita, Guide from Catania, Sicily
In the city of Catania and its province, where Tita is from, “scacciata”, a flatbread local to Sicily, is always present on Christmas Eve dinner tables. In the province of Catania, the traditional filling features broccoli, onion, pecorino cheese, and sausage. It’s baked in the oven on large trays with two layers of dough, almost like a closed pizza. Usually, family members plan in advance who will bring the scacciata as well as other typical dishes such as fried artichokes, baccalà (dried and salted cod), and baked pasta. On Christmas Day, everyone meets again to enjoy the leftovers from the previous day.
Virginia, Guide from Lucca, Tuscany
For Virginia, a native of Tuscany, it’s not truly Christmas without the legendary Torta di Cecco! This chocolate covered cake filled with dried fruit is pure bliss. Virginia and her family usually scarf it down after lunch on Christmas Day. Tuscany is also known for ricciarelli from Siena, which are almond cookies with a characteristic crinkled surface. A typical Christmas staple, these cookies are so delicious that Virginia has a friend who wakes up early every Christmas Eve to drive from Pisa to Siena so that he can bring them to loved ones as Christmas gifts.
Virginia was born in the small town of San Martino a Ulmiano between Pisa and Lucca. In this area, nativity scenes are quite popular and on the afternoon of Christmas Day locals go see the mechanical nativity scene. Built in 1951 by an ingenious artisan, the nativity scene is composed of 80 moving characters positioned on a surface of 860 square feet. The scenes recall several biblical passages including the Annunciation to Mary and the adoration of the Magi. This is all thanks to the imagination and skill of the animator who created a rich landscape with light effects that generate images of the guiding star and snowfall against the background of the sea.
Luca, Guide from Venice, Veneto
Each Christmas, Luca and his family enjoy a water taxi ride at sunset, just like many visitors to his hometown have done. After boarding with all of their wrapped presents, Luca and his family ride along the Grand Canal to Murano Island where they meet with relatives at the family glass-making furnace. The family feasts together warmed by the heat of the ovens, which are also used to cook the fish for the dinner.
Eva, Guide from Syracuse, Sicily
Eva loves sharing the local culture of her city with travelers who visit Syracuse. One particular tradition that stands out for the people of Syracuse is the Feast of Santa Lucia (St. Lucy). Each year on December 13, locals celebrate the martyrdom of Saint Lucy when, in the year 304, she was tortured and killed for her refusal to deny her faith in Christ. St. Lucy is the beloved Patron Saint of Syracuse and what is even more remarkable is that she was only 15 years old at the time of her martyrdom.
In Syracuse, St. Lucy is celebrated with a long procession featuring 48 men that carry a beautiful, massive silver statue on their shoulders from the Cathedral of Syracuse through the streets of the city. The procession lasts for about 6 hours until the statue is placed on the main altar of the Church of Santa Lucia al Sepolcro. Under normal circumstances, spectacular fireworks mark the end of this day of celebration and though things are a little different this year, Eva is certain that the light will return!
Sabrina, Guide from Manarola, Cinque Terre, Liguria
Sabrina takes great pride in being from the Cinque Terre village of Manarola, which is home to the largest nativity scene in the world. Composed of over 300 life-size figures and 15,000 lights, the Manarola nativity scene is a wonderful sight that extends across the hill above the town, lighting up the area. The original idea was born 50 years ago with Mario Andreoli who gave life to the nativity scene figures by reutilizing scrap materials. Thanks to solar panels, Manarola’s annual tradition has been eco-friendly for over 10 years.
In spite of these unprecedented times, Manarola has maintained its tradition and on December 8 the 2020 nativity scene was inaugurated with new figures. This year’s nativity scene is dedicated to all healthcare workers on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic, in hopes that this difficult period will soon pass.
Giulia, Guide from Cinque Terre and La Spezia, Liguria
Even outside of the Cinque Terre, the Liguria region is home to many fascinating traditions, as Giulia tells us. One example is the village of Tellaro, which is renowned for its underwater nativity scene. Each year on the night of December 24, divers emerge from the sea with a statue of Baby Jesus. The entire scene is illuminated with small candles (called lumini) placed throughout the streets of the town and the surrounding cliffs. Once on dry land, the statue of Baby Jesus is held up by the parish priest. At this point, the cheers of the locals are punctuated by fireworks and a choir. Then, the statue is taken across town to the parish church where Christmas Mass is held.
This year, the nativity scene will proceed, but in a scaled-back version. It will begin earlier in the evening and will consist of the divers emerging from the water and passing the statue of Baby Jesus to the parish priest who will hold mass. There will not be any fireworks, crowds, nor choirs, but the thousands of candles placed around the town and the cliffs will shine brightly in the night.
Maddalena, Guide from Florence, Tuscany
Maddalena and her family like to breathe in the crisp air of Christmas while admiring the lights and decorations along the Arno River. She spends Christmas Eve with her extended family and shares Christmas dinner with her best friends and their children who over the years have become best friends with her children.
Ardena, Guide and Tour Escort from Turin, Piedmont
Ardena loves to walk under the Luci d’Artista, which are Christmas light arrangements by contemporary artists, a tradition unique to her city, Turin. She also enjoys decorating the Christmas tree with her mom and sister using the same ornaments from when she was a child.
Isabella, Guide from Lake Maggiore
The Christmas tradition that is dearest to Isabella is tied to her childhood in a small Piedmont hamlet called Pedemonte di Gravellona Toce. On Christmas Eve, everyone in the town follows a caravan of locals portraying the various characters of the nativity scene including the Virgin Mary, St. Joseph, the shepherds, and even Baby Jesus. After traversing the streets of the town, everyone walks to the top of a hill where the characters position themselves for the rest of the evening. The living nativity scene is followed by Christmas Mass.
This year, due to the global health emergency, the living nativity scene unfortunately will not take place in Isabella’s hometown. She is hopeful that next year the nativity scene will return. According to Isabella, you will never find mention of the small nativity scene of Pedemonte di Gravellona Toce in any guide book, however this hometown tradition holds a special place in her heart.
Giulia, Trips 2 Italy Operations Manager from Colico, Lombardy
Giulia loves the atmosphere of the weeks leading up to Christmas even more than the big day itself. One of her favorite traditions is to visit Milan on December 7, which is the feast day of Saint Ambrose, the patron saint of the city.
As part of the celebrations, Milan hosts the Oh Bej! Oh Bej! Fair, a Christmas market near the Castello Sforzesco that starts on December 7 and lasts until the following Sunday. Giulia likes to visit the market to purchase a few small gifts. She then walks over to Piazza Duomo where she admires the Christmas tree in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II as well as the festive window displays and lights of the designer stores—in particular the ones of the iconic Italian department store, La Rinascente.
December 7 is also the opening night of Teatro alla Scala’s season. The ladies in their elegant long dresses and the men in their dapper tuxedos that walk through the crowds to reach the opera house together with the lights, Christmas decorations, and aroma of roasted chestnuts all make this beautiful city even more magical.
Viktoria, Naples Specialist, Campania
For Viktoria, Christmas adds a bit of extra sparkle to the lively city of Naples, where the Christmas spirit makes its entrance early. As Christmas approaches, the houses and streets are filled with the heady aromas of local sweets made fresh by moms and grandmas. As any Neapolitan will tell you, nothing quite compares to freshly baked Christmas specialties like the pastiera tart or delectable struffoli, fried balls of dough that are fun to make at home.
Walking through the streets of the city center, the ever-present bustle remains as locals rush to purchase last-minute gifts before the big family dinner. Via San Gregorio Armeno, home of the city’s nativity scene workshops, is the hub of Christmas shopping. In Naples it’s just not Christmas without a nativity scene!
On Christmas Eve, the whole family participates and prepares a large dinner with fish dishes that extends past midnight. Then, on Christmas Day various appetizers and baked pasta dishes are always present as is the traditional maritata soup and insalata di rinforzo, a cauliflower salad. Lunch concludes well past its usual time as families savor ciociole (dried fruits) and compete against each other during rowdy tombola matches.
Still, perhaps the best part about Christmas is the joy on the children’s faces as they unwrap their gifts from Babbo Natale. The city is filled with great happiness and family is the keyword, because, at its core, Christmas is when everyone gathers together.
From the peaks of the Alps to the southern coast of Sicily, each Italian family celebrates Christmas a little differently. Yet several common themes hold true throughout the country, specifically the importance of family and sharing a delicious meal with loved ones. Near or far, Italians always find a way to celebrate together, proving that even the simplest traditions have the power to unite.