In Italy, the Christmas season officially begins on December 8th, the Day of the Immaculate Conception. On this day, families decorate the Christmas tree and begin decking the halls with red and green. Throughout the holiday season, Italian children will snack on dessert breads called panettone and pandoro. These treats will also likely be served after the big meal on Christmas Day. Every church puts out a Nativity scene. The city’s most beloved church will put up the biggest and most extravagant Nativity scene out in the piazza for everyone to enjoy. Some cities even host a grand tree-lighting ceremony in the piazzas.
Throughout the holiday season, cities typically host a Christmas market. Most are outdoors, open in the afternoon through late evening, and a huge hit for locals and tourists alike! Visitors can skip dinner for that day, and instead plan on enjoying delicious street foods at the market, like roasted chestnuts or roasted meats, pair with Italian-style hot chocolate or mulled wine. Specialty foods and spices are available for purchase, as well as locally-made hand-crafted goods. This is the perfect place to find a unique Christmas gift for a loved one – or yourself!
Christmas Eve, known as La Vigilia in Italian, is a day of feasting. (Come to think of it, most holidays in Italy are a day of feasting!) The main course for dinner is seafood. Every region has its own specific traditional dish, but the seafood theme remains the same.
Instead of a grand Christmas Day dinner, Italian families gather around the table for a magnificent spread for lunch. This lunch does not start and end around noon, however. It will start in the early afternoon, and the family likely will not leave the table until well after 6pm. Sometimes the lunch even gradually becomes dinner as well! Families eat, drink, talk, eat again, drink again, play a board game, eat some more, drink some more, and so on for hours on end.
One of the most unique traditions that greatly differs from American tradition happens on the official end of the Christmas season, January 6th. Epiphany, as you may know it in English, is more commonly known to Italian children as “the day of La Befana”. La Befana acts much like Santa Claus, bringing goodies to the good little boys and girls of Italy, except that she is an old Italian witch on a broom instead of a plumb old man with a red suit and some reindeer. The night before, children leave out their shoes or socks (much like American stockings), to be filled with gifts of candy from La Befana.
If you find yourself traveling to Italy during the holiday season, be sure to scout out all the public Christmas trees on display in big piazzas. Then, stop into the nearest grocery store and pick out a panettone or pandoro – or both! – to treat yourself with something sweet later. In large cities, some restaurants stay open even on Christmas Day, serving special Christmas feasts for travelers without access to their own kitchen so that everyone can enjoy a festive meal. Italy is a great travel location for all, single individuals, groups of friends, and families, especially during the holiday season!
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