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Italian Christmas Traditions and Food: Celebrate Like a Local

Prepare for a Whole Month of Festivities

Christmas holidays in Italy start with the Day of Immaculate Conception on December 8th. This Catholic holiday celebrates the conception of the Virgin Mary as free from sin because she was conceived immaculately. Despite the religious nature of this day, many families use this free day to get together and start decorating their Christmas trees.

The festive season then runs until Epiphany on January 6th. That’s when the Three Wise Men arrived in Bethlehem with their gifts for the Baby Jesus.

When it comes to exchanging presents, Italians don’t have a specific day dedicated to that. While some exchange gifts on Christmas Eve, others prefer to start sharing their holiday spirit up to two weeks ahead of Christmas.

Start feasting on La Vigilia di Natale (Christmas Eve)

Of course, Christmas is the time to indulge and enjoy yourself to the fullest.

That’s why Italians celebrate Christmas Eve with a large feast known as La Vigilia on December 24th.

Traditionally, Italian Christmas Eve dinner is a meat-free meal. According to an old Catholic tradition, it’s meant to purify your body ahead of a religious celebration. So, instead of meat, it’s all about seafood.

As with many other cultures, the dishes served during the holiday season vary from region to region. But you’ll often see marinated anchovies or tuna; baccala (codfish) served with potatoes; mussels in broth; clams with pasta; and, of course, lots of risotto.

And continue on Natale (Christmas)

The following day is known for…well, eating, again!

In Italy, it’s customary to have a family lunch in the early afternoon on December 25th. However, don’t let the word ‘lunch’ mislead you. Italians save some of their best mouthwatering recipes for this meal. To top it off, the dish count can go up to over a dozen courses!

At the Italian Christmas table, you’ll often see a variety of cured meats and cheeses as antipasti, followed by typical Italian dishes such as frittataand baked pasta al forno.

The main attraction of this meal though is definitely the roast. Pork, beef or lamb are all typical Italian Christmas meats. Alongside it comes lots of vegetables like green beans, carrots, roasted potatoes and parsnips.

After you’ve made it through all the courses, it’s time for dessert. Some traditional Italian Christmas sweets include panettone and pandoro.Both are types of sweet bread with the main difference being that panettone contains candied fruit and raisins. If you’re celebrating in southern Italy, you’ll probably come across delicious spiced nut pastries known as mostaccioli.

To be completely honest, the list of traditional Italian Christmas dishes could go on forever. And they all are guaranteed to tempt your taste buds!

Share your Christmas Spirit with Zampognari

Italian Christmas wouldn’t be complete without music.

Especially if you’re in Rome, you might spot zampognari. They’re bagpipe players who dress up as shepherds and go from house to house playing Christmas carols.

This is an old tradition, dating back to before Italian unification in 1861. It started as a way for shepherds to collect donations during the Christmas season. They would travel all the way down from their mountain homes to play piffero in the market squares.

If you’re lucky enough to have one show up at your door, be sure to give them a tip!

Look Out for Nativity Scenes

One of the most loved Italian Christmas traditions is presepe or nativity scenes.

Nativity scenes depicting the birth of Jesus are spread throughout homes, churches and squares all over Italy. In fact, it seems that no matter where you’re in the country, there’s always one close by.

They’re often made out of wood or terracotta and come in all shapes and sizes. Some are very elaborate, while others are quite simple. But they all tell the story of Mary, Joseph and the Baby Jesus in some way. Some presepe manage to depict the whole town of Bethlehem in exquisite detail.

In the past century, nativity scenes have been adapted to reflect modern times and cultures. Today, the characters often represent different nationalities, races and religions.

Wear Red Underwear on New Year's Eve

Italians are a superstitious bunch. And many New Year’s Eve traditions are the evidence.

One of them, for instance, is eating pork and lentils.

Traditionally, pork with its richness represents wealth while lentils symbolise money due to their coin-like shape. Eating dishes containing those is believed to bring prosperity in the new year.

And to really guarantee that the coming year is a success, make sure to get yourself a pair of red underwear. Italians flock to markets and department stores after Christmas to get their hands on the lucky item ahead of NYE.

Of course, just like it’s common in other European countries, Italians head to the streets after the NYE meal. The sky glistens in all colors and shapes as Italians launch their fireworks.

More Presents from La Befana

It’s time for the final festive moment: La Befana!

On Epiphany Eve, January 5th, children leave their shoes or socks out to be filled with candy. Just like Santa, La Befana comes down the chimney and leaves a treat for little kids while they’re asleep. Unless you didn’t behave of course. The only thing that naughty kids will find is a lump of charcoal in their shoes!

Legend has it that Befana was an old Italian lady who wanted to bring gifts to Baby Jesus but got lost. Since then she’s been trying to find her way to Bethlehem each year on January 6th, flying from one house to another on her broom.

With that broom, she’s said to sweep away any unhappy thoughts or bad deeds of the previous year.

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