Five Christmas traditions in Italy

Christmas is a very popular holiday in Italy. The Christmas traditions are many and often different from region to region.

Christmas tree

The tree is one of the most famous symbols of Christmas all over the world.

The modern use of the tree was born according to some in Tallinn, in Estonia, in 1441, when a large fir tree was erected in the Town Hall Square. Men and women, dancing together around the tree in search of a soul mate.

Tradition then spread throughout the rest of Europe .

The Christmas tree In Italy arrived in the second half of the nineteenth century thanks to Queen Margherita of Savoy. She had one decorated in the Quirinale Palace, launching a real fashion.

Gubbio holds the record for the tallest Christmas tree in the world, created by setting up with light decorations the Mount Igino which overlooks the city. It reaches a height of approximately 2132 feet.

Tradition has it that the tree is decorated on December 8th and removed on January 6th.


Nativity scene


Nativity scene

The nativity scene was created by St. Francis of Assisi. On the night of Christmas Eve of 1223 in Greccio (Umbria) he set up the first living nativity scene in history.

The first nativity scene with statues dates back to 1289. It was the work of the sculptor Arnolfo di Cambio who made eight wooden statues representing the Holy Family, the ox and the donkey, and the Magi. It is now in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome.

From that moment on, many artists experimented with the creation of wooden or terracotta figures. The artists of the nativity scenes, par excellence, are the Neapolitans. Other prestigious schools are also Bologna and Genoa.

Between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the Neapolitans inserted the Nativity with characters relating to everyday life.

In 1800 it spread rapidly throughout Italy. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century also entered the homes of the people.


Christmas at the table

Italy is divided between those who give more importance to the Christmas Eve dinner and those to the Christmas dinner.

In the Center and in the South the Eve is celebrated the most, in the North more the day of Christmas. Christmas eve dinner is usually based on fish. It is a tradition that derives from the Catholic religion, which considers December 24 a lean day.

The typical dishes of Christmas in Italy are many and vary from region to region.
In Veneto, for example, polenta with cod and boiled meat with sauces.
In Emilia Romagna, tortellini in broth, followed by cotechino and sausages.
The capon or the hen in Lazio.
In Campania everything is based on fish, from spaghetti with clams to the traditional capitone (a large eel).


Christmas desserts



A constant of all the Italian tables are desserts. The most famous are the panettone, pandoro and torrone.

Panettone is a cake from Milan. It seems that it already existed in 1200 but its history is lost between legend and reality.

A legend tells of a story that takes place in the 15th century when the Duke of Milan asked his cook to prepare a delicious banquet. The cook successfully prepared the feast, however, he forgot about the dessert in the oven, which had burnt by the time he remembered it.  The cook was in despair but thankfully the little kitchen boy, Toni, suggested using the sweet cake he had made for himself in the morning. The duke enjoyed it so much that he asked for its name. So the cook responded “L’è ‘l pan de Toni“, (it’s ‘the bread of Toni).

Panettone is made from a leavened dough based on water, flour, butter, eggs or even egg yolks, to which are added candied fruit, orange peel and cedar in equal parts, and raisins.

Pandoro is a typical dessert of Verona. According to some, the origins of the recipe are found in Austria, where the so-called “Vienna bread” was produced. It probably derived, in turn, from the French “brioche”. According to others, however, it could be derived from the “pane de oro” (golden bread) that was served on the tables of the richest Venetians.

On October 14, 1894 Domenico Melegatti, founder of the homonymous confectionery industry, deposited a soft and characteristic eight-pointed star shaped body in the patent office, by the artist Angelo Dall’Oca Bianca, an impressionist painter.

The basic ingredients are: flour, sugar, eggs, butter, cocoa butter and yeast.

The name Torrone comes from the Latin torreo, to toast, in reference to the roasting of the hazelnuts nside the Christmas cake.  The origins are lost in the mists of time.  Nowadays we find soft nougats and hard nougats, which differ from each other based on the cooking of the dough and the relationship between honey and sugar.




A Befana decoration

The last day of the Christmas holidays in Italy is the Epiphany. It falls on January 6th and is a day for children.

Tradition has it that the Befana, a very old woman who flies on a broom, visits the children on the night of January 5th and fills the socks hanging from the fireplace or near a window with sweets or charcoal.

Children who behaved well during the year will receive sweets, candies, dried fruit or small toys. The most pestiferous ones, who have behaved badly, will find their socks full of charcoal.

In the nativity scene, on the day of the Epiphany, the statues of the Magi are brought near the cradle of the Child Jesus, because that is the day when the three men who are on their way to adore Jesus arrive at the stable where the Messiah was born.

Therefore Epiphany is in this day that when usually italians dispose of the trees.


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