Christmas in Italy is magical. The festivities begin mid-way through December and last until January 6th, the Epiphany, when the Three Wise Men arrived in Bethlehem, bearing gifts. Although children receive presents from Father Christmas on Christmas Day, the Italian tradition of 'La Befana', the old woman who brings gifts on the Epiphany still persists. Legend has it the Three Wise Men came to her house and invited her to join their search for Christ. She was too busy so declined, but regretted it, and to this day is still searching for the child while leaving presents for any good children she comes across.
One tradition in southern Italy involves bagpipe-playing shepherds or Zampognari as they are known. The shepherds leave their mountain villages to travel to their local towns. Dressed in their traditional sheepskin and wool coats, they tour the piazzas lit up in lights bringing the rustic music of the mountains to the town dwellers.
Presepi, or Christmas cribs are common in Italy. Most churches, and many Italian homes, will have a nativity scene on display. There are many variations on the theme, it may be just the Holy Family or a whole village. In Rome, an annual exhibition displays 100 different cribs from all over the world, including versions carved into nuts and even pasta.
The Christmas tree is an essential part of any Italian Christmas. In 1991 the town of Gubbio in Umbria entered the Guinness book of records for having the tallest Christmas tree ever at 650 meters (2,132 ft). It had over 700 lights - presumably to make sure you didn't miss it.
In regions such as Emilia Romagna the tradition of the Yule Log is still followed. The head of the household makes a Christmas toast and a large log on the fire is set ablaze and kept alight for the 12 days of Christmas. It is a tradition that dates back to the 12th Century and is seen in other parts of Europe too.
At midnight on Christmas Eve, churches ring their bells and cannons are fired from Rome's Castel Sant'Angelo to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Christmas services and carol concerts are held everywhere and are wonderful, even for the non-religious.
On Christmas Day, there is the Cenone (literally meaning 'big dinner') varies from region to region. In southern Italy, Christmas Eve is traditionally a day of fasting before the Christmas evening meal, known as the 'Feast of Seven Fishes'. In Basilicata, they have Cod with fried peppers; in Sicily they tuck into mussels, lobster and oysters while Puglia enjoys grilled Anguilla eel. In the north cappelletti and Lasagne are both mainstays of the Christmas dinner and are usually followed by roast and boiled meats. Everywhere panettone, a sweet bread loaf originating from Milan is enjoyed as a dessert. Famous desserts at Christmas also include Sicilian Cannoli and Pandoro di Verona.
Christmas markets are held in villages and towns throughout Italy. For an Alpine Christmas, head to Bolzano in northern Italy. Set against the backdrop of the Dolomites, the romantic porticos and picturesque squares of the medieval town centre are brightly-lit, and the aroma of roast chestnuts fills the air. Each year Verona hosts a Christmas market in the central square. The German-style market has elegantly illuminated and decorated huts, selling regional foods and handicrafts. You can taste specialties such as mulled wine, fruit cake and gingerbread. The most famous market is held in Piazza Navona in the historic centre of Rome. During the Christmas period, the square becomes a bustling Christmas market, selling nativity scenes, decorations and sweets with streets artists and acrobats providing entertainment. In Naples, Via San Gregorio Armeno is famous all over the world for its handcrafted nativity figurines. Its shops and stalls are a must-see at Christmas time when it is buzzing with Neapolitans and tourists alike, all out to purchase figures made from wax, bronze, cork and clay.
Contact Realpoint to find out more about property for sale in regions mentioned in our post, and if you plan to spend Christmas in Italy, why not meet one of our representatives to view a few magical properties.