The holiday season is a wonderful time to see Italy. Though winter is technically the low season, December sees a peak of visitors and festivities with a wealth of special events and seasonal sights.   

No matter where you are in the Bel Paese, you’re sure to feel the festive atmosphere. Italian cities big and small decorate their centers with lights, garland and trees, and shops deck out their windows for the holidays. All of Italy is beautiful in December, but here’s where to go for that something specific.

Where to Go and Why: 

Vatican City for the religious festivities 

St. Peter's Basilica in lights during the holidays in Italy
St. Peter’s Piazza decorated for Christmas. Photo by Giuseppe Milo on Flickr 

Italy is a predominately Roman Catholic country and the holiday season reflects that. Even if you’re not religious, seeing or participating in a mass is a chance to get to know the local culture and Italians Christmastime traditions. Each year on December 24th there is midnight mass held by the Pope in Saint Peter’s Basilica. (It’s often held before midnight, so check online). For those with only a passing interest or simply without a seat, join the crowd in St. Peter’s Piazza to follow the mass on a big-screen TV. Come back at noon on Christmas Day for the Pope’s Christmas message which he gives from his apartment overlooking the square. The square itself is decorated with a massive Christmas tree and a life-size nativity scene. 

Bolzano for the over-the-top Christmas markets 

All of Trentino Alto-Adige is known for its beautiful Christmas market coming from its long Austrian heritage, but known as is large or over-the-top as Bolzano’s. Going strong for nearly 30 years, the Bolzano Christmas Market strictly sells only locally produced options. Here you can find the region’s handiwork at play with wooden statuettes, decorations and nativities, as well as musical instruments, decorative candles, slippers, hats, stationary and more. 

Besides the commercial aspect of the market with many handcrafted gifts and artwork, visitors can see the artisans at work in the craft tent, enjoy local dishes like strudel and mulled wine and enjoy horse-drawn carriage wines, a merry-go-round or puppet theatre for the little ones.  

Naples for artisanal Nativity masterpieces 

Nowhere in Italy is more famous for its handcrafted Nativity scenes than Naples, and ground zero for this work is via San Gregorio Armeno. A long pedestrian street in the historic center, there are hundreds of shops featuring handmade presepibut each shop will likely have a slightly different style, color, cut or characters. Not only can you find the classic Jesus, Mary and Joseph figurines, but you can expand on your Nativity to create a veritable city with shepherds, blacksmiths and vendors of all kinds, as well as more modern ideas like pizza-makers, politicians and soccer players.  

If the crowds get to be too much on “Christmas Alley” (as San Gregorio Armeno is often called) head to the Museo Nazionale di San Martino in Naples to see the largest Nativity scene in the world, with more than 500 different people, animal, angel and object figurines. 

Matera for the living Nativity scene 

Known as the presepi viventi, a living nativity scene is when costumed people act out some or all of the Christmas story, usually on Christmas Day, St. Stephen’s on December 26 and the Epiphany on January 6 (when the Three Wise Men brought their gifts to Jesus). There are dozens of living Nativity scenes throughout Italy. In Chia, Lazio there are more than 500 actors. Barga in Tuscany includes at least a hundred costumed people walking through the town behind Mary and Joseph asking for lodging and of course Greccio, Lazio is said to be the home of the very first Nativity scene when Saint Francis of Assisi constructed one in a cave there in 1223.  

Still, only one has the nearly surreal backdrop of the sassi di Matera. Houses, churches and monasteries were carved and created in caverns of Matera’s rocks. A completely unique destination no matter the time of year, the landscape is even more evocative with these biblical reenactments. 

Turin for the heart-warming coffeehouses  

A decadent Bicerin is just what you need to warm up after sightseeing in December. Photo by Jeremy Hunsinger on Wikicommons

Turin is known for its chocolate, and what better time of year to indulge in this local treat than the holiday season? You can try the Gianduia chocolate or a creamy hot chocolate, but to experience the coffeehouse culture at its most decadent, order a Bicerin. A traditional drink from Piedmont, it’s a mix of chocolate, coffee and cream that will for sure warm you up on a cold winter day.  

Orvieto for the week-long Jazz Festival 

Umbria’s winter edition is held each December in the suggestive town of Orvieto for five days. That’s five days of music starting from noon and running late into the night at different times and different venues. From the Emilio Greco Museum to the Sala Etrusca in the Palazzo del Capitano del Popolo filled with pianists, food, wine and jazz in the Palazzo dei Sette or the by now annual send off with the Funk Off band in the streets where the city itself is the true location.  

Rome for massive Hanukkah celebrations  

Though the city is home to the seat of the Roman Catholic religion, Rome, and all of Italy, has a large Jewish population and a long Jewish history. A huge, twenty-foot menorah is set up in Piazza Barberini, with crowds to match the size every night for the lighting ceremony. A smaller menorah can be found in Piazza Bologna for those wanting to escape the crowds. Mid-December you can join a lively Hanukkah street party on Via del Portico d’Ottavia, in Rome’s Jewish quarter with dancing, processions and, of course, food and wine. And instead of a jelly doughnut, go for the Roman version: the Fritelle de Chanuka. Sweet dough fritters mixed with raisins and anise seeds, fried in oil and topped with hot honey, they’re delicious, local and the perfect way to celebrate Hanukkah in Rome! 

Milan for the Christmas shopping and panettone

The galleria in Milan with lights and a tree for the holidays in Italy
The beautiful ‘Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II’ in the centre of Milan all lit up for the holidays. Photo by Ralf Steinberger on Flickr

Milan and shopping go hand-in-hand and that doesn’t change for Christmas shopping. Beyond the lights and enormous Christmas tree in front of the Duomo, shops big and small go all out on their window displays. Worth it even just to window shop, it also makes last-minute gift buying a breeze. When in doubt, go for the city’s hometown Christmas dessert and buy an artisanal panettone. A sweet bread with candied fruits and raisins, panettone has its origins in Milan, but is now a staple throughout Italy during the holidays. 

Agnone for a river of fire parade

Every year in the small region of Molise, the town of Agnone gives a nod to its roots in their Christmas fire festival, called the Ndocciata. On Christmas Eve locals in traditional dress carry large, fan-shapped wooden torches through the town, creating a river of fire and light to vigil the coming of Christmas. The parade ends in a huge central bonfire. Recently, the town has held a symbolic festival another weekend before Christmas Eve to allow even visitors to participate.  

Bologna for a unique New Year’s Eve tradition 

Bologna celebrates New Year’s Eve with the Fiera del Bue Grasso, or the fat ox fair. The ox is decorated with flowers and ribbons and is the prize for a lottery held to see who will win the ox! People join the procession with candles and fireworks until it ends just before midnight in Piazza Maggiore. There, all of Bologna rings in the new year and symbolically “burns” the old year at midnight by throwing a special dummy known as the Vecchione into a large public bonfire. Designed by a different artist each year, the dummy is worth a look before his destruction and the Piazza has live music, performances and a street market as well.  

Venice for a mass New Year’s Eve kiss 

There's no place or time as atmospheric as the holidays in Italy

There are few places as romantic as Venice. The atmosphere is charged with beauty and love and on New Year’s Eve it’s even more electric with music, fireworks and a plethora of sparkling wine toasts. See the traditional concert in Teatro la Fenice, but hustle to Piazza San Marco before midnight for the classic “mass kiss” when the bells ring in the New Year. 

Otranto to see the first dawn of the year in Italy 

The white city in Puglia, Italy’s heel of the boot, celebrates the New Year with the “Alba dei Popoli” festival, or Dawn of the People, a local party that ends at dawn. That’s because the Punta Palascia lighthouse in Otranto is Italy’s easternmost spot, separating the Ionian Sea from the Adriatic, and the first opportunity to see the dawn of the new year in Italy.  

Florence for traditional Epiphany celebrations 

The Epiphany on January 6th is the day the three wise men finally reached baby Jesus. In Italy it’s traditionally celebrated by an ugly but friendly “witch” known as La Befana who comes during the night to fill children’s shoes or stockings with candy, toys and sweets. In fact, most people in Italy refer to the Epiphany as “la Befana” and celebrations throughout Italy feature her. In Florence, however, the holiday’s holier roots are still visible every year with a historical procession through the heart of the city. Known as the Calvalcade of the Magi, participants dress in traditional costume to represent the journey of the Magi to Jesus. The parade starts from Palazzo Pitti, crosses the Arno River and ends at the Duomo, with a stop in Piazza della Signoria for a flag throwing performance! 

Massive christmas star decoration set up for the holidays in Italy
The Christmas Star leaping from the ancient Verona Arena. Photo by Gianni Crestani from Pixabay

Italians have a saying, “l’Epifania tutte le feste porta via,” meaning with the Epiphany the holidays are over. The holiday season is long in Italy – trees are up well past New Years – but come January 6th it’s time to take down the tree, pack up the decorations and put a close to the festivities. That is, until Carnival season!

Want to celebrate the holidays in Italy? Give yourself the perfect gift with a tailored trip just for you! Contact us today for help designing your dream journey for a no-stress, hassle-free holiday in beautiful Italy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Similar stories

How to See an Opera in the Verona Arena

The Best Beaches of Puglia

Reflecting on 2020, Looking to the New Year Ahead

Most visitors to Italy only think of the Mediterranean summers, but December is a great time to visit the peninsula. Tour Italy’s greatest cities under the twinkling lights of Christmas. It’s the most festive time of the year and the atmosphere and spirit of celebration are addictive! 

The holiday season in Italy starts with the Immaculate Conception on December 8th, when cities’ Christmas lights are turned on and Italians officially bring out the Christmas decorations and set up their tree or Nativity scene. Though it’s slightly later than most American’s day-after-Thanksgiving approach, in Italy the holiday season doesn’t end until the Epiphany on January 6th.

A predominately Catholic country, most of the season’s big-hitting holiday dates are from Christmas Eve on December 24th to the Epiphany on January 6th – the original 12 days of Christmas!

Though winter is the low season for travel to Italy, Christmastime does see a spike in visitors, as other Europeans have time off and tourists from all over plan their trip to take in the beautiful sights and smells of the holiday season in Italy. Coming to Italy in December? We’ve got everything you need to know about the holiday season in Italy:

Italian Holiday Traditions

Italians are champions of tradition and there’s no better time to see that than the holidays, when each symbol, event and meal are reminders of the magic of the season. No matter where you’re coming from, there are a few things you can expect to see during the holiday season in Italy:

Christmas markets

A good Christmas market is a feast for the senses, with delicious smells, warm desserts and drinks, handcrafted wares and atmospheric lights. Photo from Pixabay

Though this tradition is mostly attributed to Germany and Austria, Italians love their Christmas markets as much as their northern neighbors. In December, you can find Christmas markets in most cities throughout Italy. Visit Italy’s largest Christmas market in Bolzano, a city in the border region of South Tyrol. In Florence the historical Santa Croce Piazza fills with a market hailing directly from Germany for the entire month of December or head to Piazza Navona in Rome. Some, like those listed above, last all month, others like those in Genoa, Bologna or Syracuse, Sicily last for a week or two or at a specific time period, like Milan’s O Bej O Bej. The market, that gets it’s name from the local dialect for “how beautiful, how beautiful,”  usually runs for one weekend around the time of Milan’s patron saint festival on December 7th.

Christmas lights and Christmas trees

Few people in Italy decorate their house or garden with Christmas lights, but each and every town center will be positively lit up with lights and sparkling decorations. Some favorites are Ferrara, Turin, Milan and Rome. Beyond that, you can expect big cities to have a massive pine tree decorated for the season, usually located in front of the Duomo. There’s one in Florence, Milan, Naples and Venice, but perhaps the most impressive is Rome, which has not one, but several Christmas trees throughout the city. You can usually find a tree near the Colosseum, in Piazza Venezia, on Capitoline Hill and, of course, in St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican City.

Traditional meals

Fish is the traditional meal served on Christmas Eve, as Italians avoid meat and large meals in fasting and preparation for Christmas Day. After dinner many families attend their local midnight Mass. On Christmas Day, families feast the entire day, with a large lunch that usually has multiple courses and dozens of servings. Though every family is different, some regions have specific food traditions for Christmas Day, such as homemade cappelletti in broth in central Italian regions or panettone for dessert in the north.

Regional celebrations

As always in Italy, you can expect different traditions from different regions. Italy is a nation of city-states and though it’s one country, each area is fiercely proud of its own traditions and culture. Some dates, like December 8th, are national holidays, but there are other important holiday dates for individual regions. For example, Abruzzo celebrates St. Nicholas on December 6th, the generous saint’s feast day, with the nonni dressing up as St. Nicholas and giving gifts to children. The Milanese celebrate their patron saint, St. Ambrose, in style on December 7th, and those from Bergamo (as well as other towns) exchange gifts on December 13th, St. Lucy’s Day, rather than Christmas day.

St. Lucy, or Santa Lucia, is also celebrated in Syracuse, Sicily, where where she’s celebrated with a huge parade that ends in a firework display over the harbor in one of the biggest celebrations of the year. Research in advance your Italian destinations to see the extra events and celebrations they may have in December.

Caroling or … bagpipes!

Though caroling isn’t such a common practice anymore, in Lazio, Abruzzo, Sicily and other areas of southern Italy you may still see bagpipe players, called zampognari, playing carols the week of Christmas. Originally a practice of shepherds who would play their Christmas hymns as they returned home from their outposts in the mountains, today it’s continued by locals who want to keep the culture alive.

Nativity scenes

Living nativity scenes with local participants are popular throughout Italy. Photo by Michelle Scott from Pixabay

Nativity Scenes, or presepe, are super popular in Italy. They can be found throughout town and in nearly every Italian home. Some families don’t even put up a tree in lieu of a nativity! These can be super small or enormous, elaborate affairs with collections growing by the generation. You can find the oldest Nativity in the museum of Santa Maria Maggiore Church in Rome, but the place to find hand-crafted Nativities is in Naples. Here the artisan craft is still going strong and you can shop, window shop or simply admire the skilled craftsmen at work on via San Gregorio Armeno. Sometimes called Christmas Alley, this long street in the historic city center has nativity scenes on sale year-round!

Besides these small works of art, another popular tradition in Italy is the “living nativity” with actors and sometimes entire villages as the set. Known as presepi viventi, often the locations are just as suggestive as the scene itself. Custonaci in the Trapani region of Sicily holds its living nativity in a cave, Mantova in Lombardy has around 150 people featured, and the rocks, stones and caves of Matera make for the perfect setting for a reenacted Bethlehem.

Good luck and good fortune for the New Year

New Year’s Eve has fewer specific rituals than Christmas. Italians can celebrate at home, at a restaurant (with reservations well in advanced) or in the piazza where some Italian cities organize concerts and events. Throughout the country, New Year’s Eve is often celebrated in Italy with fireworks, especially in Naples where public and private fireworks can be set off long into the night. Italians eat lentils for dinner for good luck in the coming year, usually paired with a large sausage that requires hours of slow cooking called a cotechino. The tradition doesn’t stop there – be sure to pack a pair of red underwear if you’re coming for New Year’s, it’s considered good luck as well!

La Befana, the country’s happy witch

A representation of the Befana, Italy’s Epiphany tradition. Photo by sara150578 from Pixabay

January 6th is another important holiday for the Italian Christmas season. Known as the Epiphany, this is celebrated as the day the three wise men finally reached baby Jesus. In Italy it’s celebrated by an ugly but friendly “witch” known as La Befana who comes during the night to fill children’s shoes or stockings with candy, toys and sweets, similar to a Christmas stocking in America. Remember: l’Epifania tutte le feste porta via, or with the Epiphany, the holiday season is officially over. 

Menorah lightings for Hanukkah

It’s no secret that Italy is predominately Catholic, but Italy has a large Jewish population as well. This year Hanukkah starts on December 22 and ends on December 30. The highlight of the Hanukkah celebrations is in Piazza Barberini in Rome’s Jewish quarter where an enormous 20-foot-tall menorah is kept and lit each night. The Jews came to Rome long before Jesus’ time and lived freely until about the Dark Ages, when they were forced into the ghetto for more than 300 years. Today, the Jewish ghetto, or Jewish quarter, is the location of lively events, parties and feasts to celebrate Hanukkah. 

Other impressive menorahs can be found in Milan’s Piazza San Carlo, in Florence’s Tempio Maggiore Synagogue, one of the most atmospheric in all of Italy, as well as in Venice where there are not one but five still-active synagogues. Venice’s Ghetto Square includes a Jewish Cemetery and Jewish Museum. Head to the square to see the menorah lighting and the music, dancing and food that follows. 

What to Know 

The holiday season in Italy is filled with wonderful celebrations and festivities that are well worth seeing. It also, however, is filled with closures for national holidays or reduced opening hours for winter.

Be sure you plan your visits to museums and sites in advance to avoid going when they are closed. If you happen to be there on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day or St. Stephen’s Day on December 26th, expect most everything to be closed. You’ll definitely want to book restaurants in advance for these days, as well as on New Year’s Eve.

Winter in Italy in general means attractions and transportation schedules change, usually with fewer hours or fewer trains running. Winter is Italy’s low season, but Christmastime usually sees a spike in visitors and crowds and prices may reflect that.

Remember also that just how cold it is depends a lot on where in Italy you are visiting. Up north in the Alps you might be skiing, while down in Sicily you’ll be strolling along the sea with a warming sun.

In general you should still bring a heavy coat, hat, gloves and warm, comfortable boots that can take you from day to night. Italian winters are humid, giving the air a chill even when the temperatures aren’t all that low and in northern Italy you might find rain or snow. Find out more on what to pack for winter here.

Though cold in winter, many of the attractions that you’ll want to see are indoors, making winter just as nice a time as others. Not only that, but the decorations, warm food and festivals make touring around a pleasure, even if it’s cold.

Similar stories

Carnevale in Italy: What it Is and Where to Celebrate

How to Pack for Your Italian Vacation

Reflecting on 2020, Looking to the New Year Ahead