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Christmas at St. Peter's Basilica

Italian Christmas Traditions Everyone Should Know

Italians know how to celebrate the holidays. From feasts to festivals, there are all kinds of Italian Christmas traditions that make the holiday season incredibly fun and memorable. For Italians, Christmas time isn’t just a day or two – it’s an entire month of festivities that extends even until January!

Let’s Explore All the Awesome Italian Christmas Traditions!

Nativity Scenes

Italians know the Christmas season is here when relatives, neighbors, and Catholic churches start breaking out the nativity scenes.  These nativity scenes come in all sizes. They can be small, resting underneath a Christmas tree. Or, they can be massive, set up on a lawn or front yard for everyone to see.

The presentation of the nativity scene is something deeply rooted in Italian history. St. Francis of Assisi holds credit for setting up the first presepio, or nativity scene, way back in 1223! Further South, Naples is known for going all out with its nativity scenes. There are actually Neapolitan carpenters renowned for their exceptional skills in carving nativity figurines.

If you’re Italian American, this comes as no surprise. Many Italian immigrants came from or nearby Naples, carrying their strong Catholic faith with them. It is hard to find an Italian American who doesn’t have a grandma who owns a nativity scene, along with tons of angel figurines.

pasta with clams and breadcrumbs

La Vigilia and the Feast of The Seven Fishes

Christmas Eve, or la vigilia, is a very important day during the Christmas season for Italians. It is a real feast day, but with a catch. During feast days like la vigilia, Catholics are not supposed to indulge in any meat or animal fat. So, naturally, Italians turned to seafood.

You probably heard of the Feast of the Seven Fishes before. Interesting fact – this is actually an Italian American holiday. While it is true that, in Italy, they eat only fish on Christmas Eve, it doesn’t require 7 specific types of fish. How the Feast of the Seven Fishes came to be in America is quite the mystery. Many assume it has to do with the multiple references to the number 7 in the Bible. Either way, both Italians and Italian Americans go big on Christmas Eve with a seafood dinner that everyone adores.

gorgeous Catholic church at night

Midnight Mass

After a seafood feast, Italians often get everyone together and head to Church for midnight mass. It is a very special ceremony, a way of officially celebrating Christmas. Churches are decked out with decorations that look especially gorgeous at night. What is even more exciting is the treats you get to you eat after mass. Many Italian families will indulge in a slice of panettone or pandoro, two kinds of traditional Italian sweet Christmas bread, before heading to bed. Yes – Santa isn’t the only one eating a sweet midnight snack on Christmas!

Midnight mass isn’t exclusive to just Italians and Catholics. Many Christians all over the world attend church service at midnight on Christmas Eve! We are sure they also have special treats to eat after too.

Saint Stephen’s Day (Il Giorno di Santo Stefano)

The Italian Christmas traditions do not end with Christmas Day. The day after Christmas is St. Stephen’s Day, a holiday where Italians leave their homes for a passeggiata (a stroll) with friends and family, exploring the festivities happening around town.

The holiday celebrates the first Christian martyr, Saint Stephen, a Christian deacon who was stoned to death back in 5 AD. It is said that the celebration of this Saint most likely began in Putignano, a small town not far from Bari, in the region of Puglia, Italy. The story goes that almost 800 years ago, knights brought relics of Saint Stephen to this town on December 26th. The townspeople were just so happy that they celebrated the entire day. Unsurprisingly, this celebration spread to all parts of Italy.

Today, St. Stephen’s Day is a national holiday in Italy. All over Italy, people partake in all different kinds of traditions. It can be parades, concerts, or even just a lovely holiday dinner at a good friend’s house. Whatever it is, St. Stephen’s Day is about continuing the Christmas celebration with those you love!

La Befana and The Epiphany

If you thought that the holiday season ended after New Year, you are 100 percent wrong! For Italians, the holidays extend through to January 6th, also known as La Befana. This holiday is the Epiphany (also known as Three King’s Day in other parts of the world.) But, this holiday gets its unique nickname from a fun Italian folktale about a witch, or la befana! 

In Italy, children get gifts for more than one day. On the morning of January 6th, kids look to see what treats la befana left for them the night before. La befana is a witch, with a fascinating story. During Christmas Eve, la befana initially wasn’t interested in seeing baby Jesus, after an invitation by the Three Wise Men. She soon regretted her refusal and decided to go see Jesus, bringing homemade gifts with her.

La befana wasn’t able to find baby Jesus. So, she gave her gifts to other children she met on her journey. She continues to share these gifts today, dropping them off on the eve of January 6th. But, like Santa, la befana strategically gives gifts to only good children. That’s why kids are on their best behavior around this time. It’s the only way they’ll wake up with toys and candy in the shoes and stockings they left out for la befana. If they’re not on their best behavior, they may just find coal the next day!

Are there any Italian Christmas traditions that we missed? Don’t be shy to share one with us. We would love to hear about all your memories and traditions during the holiday season!