Christmas Traditions in Italy

While the Italian celebration would be familiar to Americans in most respects, Christmas traditions in Italy offer a few surprises.

Like most things Italian, Christmas traditions in Italy tend to be both passionate and food-oriented. It’s hard to find fault with that, especially since Christmas in Italy hasn’t yet descended into that relentless commercialism that plagues the American holiday.

The traditions of Christmas in Italy aren’t terribly different from our own, with many features we’d find quite familiar. For example, many Italians have taken to erecting and decorating a Christmas tree every year. But there are some notable differences to Italian Christmas tradition, so let’s take an instructive look.

About That Tree

Many Italians prefer the creppo to the Christmas Tree. This pyramidal wooden frame consists of a series of little shelves, one usually decorated with a manger scene and the others holding small presents, fruits, or nuts. Some families dress up the creppo with stars, gilded pine cones, colored paper, and tiny pennants.

Then there’s the Urn of Life. A whole bunch of wrapped gifts are placed in a huge bowl or urn, and everyone takes turns drawing a gift until all they run out. That sounds pretty fun, right?

Christmas Eve

Like American children, Italian kids write Christmas letters… but instead of emailing Santa their wish lists, they draft notes to their parents telling them how much they love them. Traditionally, they’ll hide a letter under their father’s plate at Christmas Eve dinner, and he’ll read it after dinner is over.

Speaking of Christmas Eve dinner: Most Italians eat a meatless meal, often followed by attendance at a live nativity scene and midnight mass at the local church. Sometimes they finish off the night with a bonfire in the town square, especially in mountain villages.

Many Southern Italians enjoy the Feast of the Seven Fishes as Christmas Eve dinner, sometimes after a 24-hour fast. This dinner traditionally includes seven types of seafood, though often as many as nine, thirteen, or even twenty-one dishes may be served, depending on the ambition of the chef.

La Befana

Many Italian kids get to enjoy a secondary Christmas on Epiphany, January 6. According to legend, a kindly old witch who decided not to journey with the Three Wise Men to find Baby Jesus changed her mind too late, and now runs around leaving presents for children on the 12th Day of Christmas.

Of course, she doesn’t hesitate to leave coal for the bad ones, either. These days, though, it’s usually a coal-like rock candy called “carbone dolce.” Some people suggest that carbone dolce may even be the origins of the old coal-in-the-stocking idea.

Either way, this is one of the Christmas traditions in Italy that we should start practicing in the United States, because there are plenty of kids who deserve it here!