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Top 5 Italian Christmas traditions

It’s not often that we get to experience the Christmas season in other parts of the world. And even if it’s possible, many of us just like to be home for the holidays. So, instead, we’ve brought five Italian Christmas traditions to you.

1. The Christmas (Natale) season has an official start date

While it seems that the holiday season begins earlier and earlier every year here in Canada, the Christmas season has an official start date in Italy - December 8th. This is a national holiday called The Day of the Immaculate Conception or The Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Christmas decorations will go up on this day in many Italian cities, including large Christmas trees in the main piazzas across the country, as well as at major sites such as the Colosseum. This is also the day that Babbo Natale (Father Christmas) usually makes his first appearance.

The festivities kick into high gear the eight days leading up to Christmas. This is known as the Novena and includes 9 days of special prayer services which end on Christmas day. In addition to attending special church services, during the Novena Italians, big and small, take to the streets singing Christmas carols and reciting poems.

2. Nativity scenes (Presepi) abound

Given that roughly 71% of the population in Italy is Catholic (according to a 2016 Eurispes poll) Nativity scenes, or presepi in Italian, are a large part of the country’s Christmas traditions. If you are visiting Italy during the holidays you are bound to see several nativity scenes outside of Catholic churches and in many town piazzas and other public areas. The most impressive presepi can often be found in Naples. The city is well-known for displaying hundreds of them, some extremely elaborate with hand-crafted figurines. And, of course, you won’t want to miss one of the largest presepi in the country located in the Vatican City’s St. Peter’s Square, which is usually unveiled on Christmas Eve.

3. Food, enough said

Food is a huge part of everyday life in Italy so it’s no surprise that there are special Christmas traditions when it comes to what the Italians eat. Perhaps one of the most important Christmas traditions - especially for the Catholic population - is no meat on Christmas Eve. It’s customary for Italians to host a family gathering on December 24th with fish and pasta on the menu. A dessert favourite, especially in the south, are little timbit-like fried dough balls with honey drizzled on them, called zeppole. And no Italian household would be complete for the holidays without multiple boxes of panettone, a sweet bread often containing dried candied fruit or raisins. We like to use ours for French toast on Christmas morning.

4. Midnight Mass is a must

After their family dinner on Christmas Eve many Italians head to midnight Mass. In smaller towns the streets will be dead quiet while the families feast but suddenly erupt with people heading to mass as midnight approaches. If you are in Rome for the holidays, you can also get tickets to the Christmas Eve midnight Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican City but you will have to request them months in advance.

5. The Christmas season has an official end date

January 6th, the day of the Epiphany, is the final day of the Christmas holidays in Italy.

Most Italian families will host another large dinner - though, let’s be honest, this happens regularly all year long - on January 5th to celebrate this occasion. In many cities, on this night, children will receive candy if they were nice or coal (usually black candy) if they were naughty. In some cities like Rome and Bologna, this candy is brought by La Befana, an old lady often referred to as the Christmas witch who, legend has it, got lost on her way to visit baby Jesus in the manger.

Thinking of hosting a traditional Italian Christmas Eve dinner this year? Try Michael’s Back Door’s recipe for Italian fish stew. Buon Natale!

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