There is just something about Italy during the holidays. If it weren’t for my family living half way across the globe from the most famous boot-shaped country, I would spend the Christmas season in Italy.
From religious parades to the Christmas markets springing up in nearly every town, Italy knows how to sprinkle the magic of the holidays onto any visitor.
While most think of Italy in spring and summer when the beaches fill up with bikinis and Speedos, winter in Italy proves cold, but perfect for a fine Italian wool coat. Even if you can’t make it over the pond for the holidays, here a few events and traditions that make Italy truly magically throughout December and January.
Feast of the Immaculate Conception, December 8th: Italians celebrate when Mary was conceived with Jesus as though it is Christmas. Many towns host parades and processions where a statue to Mary is paraded through town, followed by the entire town. Lights and decorations generally go up before the event. As it is a Holy Day of Obligation, most Italians attend Mass, holding the day as almost more sacred than Christmas.
Christmas Markets, December: Nearly every Italian town hosts some sort of Christmas market with stalls selling food and local handicrafts. These markets take place throughout most of December, but the most notable markets occur in Rome’s Piazza Navona, in Naples and throughout Venice.
Decorations and Dressings, December: Throughout the month of December, Italy decorates in sparkling lights and decorations. Nativity scenes go up in most towns, usually outside the main churches. Streets light up with bows and bells, ringing in the holiday season. Work stops to set up the lights for Italians have always been known for their knack for style, even in the streets.
La Befana, January 5th-6th: One of Italy’s oldest and most celebrated holiday traditions remains La Befana. At the end of the Christmas season a witch looking woman on her broom pays a visit to the children of Italy’s homes, giving a child treats if they have been good and coal if they have not. The tradition stems for the legend that the three Wise Men stopped at a woman’s home asking for directions to Jesus’ manger. They invited her to come with them but she declined. She later regretted that decision and when looking for baby Jesus. She stopped children on her way, giving them treats in hopes they were baby Jesus. Each year, La Befana makes her rounds, displayed in storefronts and windows all over Italy, delivering treats to children on the night of January 5th.
Cookies, Cakes and Treats, December: The traditional Christmas cake of Italy, specifically from Milan, remains Panettone. The dense cake includes raisins and candied fruit. Many pastry shops throughout Italy will begin selling Panettone. As my host mother cautioned once, making Panettonne can be quite the operation. Christmas in Naples calls for struffoli, fried dough balls of deliciousness dipped in a honey-like syrup. Struffolli are then shaped into that of a wreath. Many regions have their own Christmas confection traditions, usually dating back to Roman or medieval times.