Few places know how to do Christmastime like Europe. Between feast days and lights, Duomo-sized Christmas trees and pastries galore, there’s enough Christmas cheer to attract a North Pole elf. Or, you know, a traveler who likes pretty things.
Instead of a sea of tourists, you’ll find yourself in a sea of Italians, out to enjoy the Christmas markets or shop for some authentic Made in Italy gifts. You can take part in the true Italian spirit of Christmas, buying nativity pieces in Napoli and gorging on panettone in Lombardia. Join Christmas mass in the Vatican City said by the Pope himself or gape at the poinsettias that fill even the most humble Italian church this time of year.
Christmastime is a great time to visit Italy.
Get the Most Out of Christmas in Italy
First, in Italy, the Christmas season officially starts on December 8th, particularly the weekend that follows it. The Immaculate Conception, it’s an important feast day for Catholics and a national holiday in Italy – the perfect extra day to kick-start Christmastime! On December 8th Christmas trees are set up and decorated, the lights in the street are turned on and Italians pour the streets for tree-lighting ceremonies, Christmas markets and Christmas shopping.
This means that you don’t need to wait until the week before Christmas to enjoy the festivities in Italy. In fact, airfare tends to dip a bit at the beginning of the month, rising as you near Christmas day.
Nothing can draw you out on a cold December night and warm you up more than a brightly lit Christmas market. Hundreds of small wooden booths or brightly lit tents fill the piazze of Italy with artisanal crafts and an array of aromas. It certainly puts a festive spin on Christmas shopping, but even if you don’t want to purchase anything you can enjoy the atmosphere and, of course, the food. Find fried food of every kind, salty or sweet, and follow your nose for some soul-warming cioccolata calda.
Perhaps the most notable mercatini di Natale are the ones in Trentino-Alto Adige, known for their close proximity to Austria and Germany who are the kings of Christmas markets, not to mention excellent street food and incredible woodwork, but all of Italy’s main cities will have at least one square hosting a large Christmas market with booths of artisanal crafts, desserts and other imported and local goods.
In Italy, Christmas doesn’t end on December 25th. Here the celebrations continue on…and on…and on. The day after Christmas is one nearly as important as Christmas Day itself. Santo Stefano on December 26 is a national holiday in Italy and the perfect time to have a dinner with the other side of your family, catch up with friends or sleep off the Christmas feast. But it doesn’t end there. The season goes strong (as do the decorations, and vacations, and celebrations) until January 6th, Epiphany Day. This is the day the three wise men finally made it to Mary and Jesus to give their gifts. Somehow this day has come to be celebrated by children who wait for la Befana, an old witch (she has a broomstick and all) who fills children’s stockings or shoes with candy and goodies. Once the Befana passes, the season is officially over.
How to Celebrate
You may be far from home, but you can still celebrate Christmas. Dip into the Italian Christmas traditions while you’re there. Eat the traditional Christmas desserts: pandoro or panettone. Search out a “living nativity scene”, found throughout Italy, these are people and children who dress up and create a nativity scene in their town. Try Matera in Basilicata, the city even Mel Gibson chose to use in his film The Passion. Beyond this, you could try going to a mass, especially on a feast day. Even if you’re not catholic, there’s a lot you can learn about Italy and its culture by attending a mass. If you’re in central Italy, search out the bagpipe players in the main squares of Abruzzo, Molise and Lazio. Called the zampognari, apparently these were shepherds who came down from the hills to celebrate Christmas in town. Or maybe the best way for you to celebrate Christmas in Italy is to head south to search out milder temperatures to accompany your Christmas shopping!
What to Know Before You Go
Though winter tends to be the low season in Italy, the Christmas season is excluded from that. You’ll certainly find fewer crowds of tourists, but if you’re planning on joining Christmas mass in St. Peter’s Basilica, for example, reserve well in advance.
Also keep in mind that opening hours tend to be shorter during the winter and there are exceptional closings during Christmas week.
Finally, if you’ll be in Italy during Christmas week (December 23 – January 1, in some cases) Do yourself a favor and book a restaurant well in advance. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself without food or absolutely any way to get food. No 24 hour 365 day eateries here, so you’ll want to plan ahead.