To say the holiday season is a big deal for Italians might be an understatement. In addition to Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, other December holidays include Saint Stephen’s Day (Il giorno di Santo Stefano) on the 26th and the Feast of the Immaculate Conception (Festa dell'Immacolata) on the 8th, which marks the beginning of the Christmas season in Italy.
If you’re an Italophile you probably already know that, as with much of Italian culture, there is not just one way to celebrate in Italy. Instead, there are different customs and foods to find in all 20 regions of the country. In fact, holiday celebrations can even vary from one town to the next.
There are, of course, a few holiday traditions that can be seen throughout Italy. Nativity scenes (presepi), whether small wooden creations or live scenes with people and animals are displayed in many areas. Presepi are said to have originated with Saint Francis’s return from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
Also prevalent are Christmas markets with vendors selling gifts, handmade goods and seasonal foods such as roasted chestnuts. The markets are a relatively recent addition to Italian celebrations, one that has found its way down the boot starting with regions that have a Germanic influence. And last, but not least, Christmas trees are displayed in homes and public spaces like this elaborate example in the Vatican.
One tradition for many Italians is to enjoy a “lean” meal on Christmas Eve, meaning they generally opt for fish instead of red meat. However, another culinary tradition which dates back to the Middle Ages involves a richer delicacy: capon broth or stuffed capon, a rooster bred in a specific way to result in more tender and flavorful meat.
As for presents, it is a mythical old woman named Befana who leaves them for children all over Italy on January 5th, the eve of the Feast of the Epiphany, while Babbo Natale (a Santa Claus or Father Christmas figure) brings gifts mainly in the northern regions on Christmas. Interestingly it is San Nicola or Saint Nicholas, the real life saint whose remains are buried Italy, who inspired the Santa Claus better known in northern Europe and the United States. Saint Nicholas is celebrated on December 6th and this is another day when Italian children may expect gifts. In German-speaking areas within Italy, parades are held with the devilish figure Krampus accompanying the saint.
With so many traditions and holiday foods to explore, we’ve narrowed down a sampling to give you a taste of the variety of Christmas celebrations in Italy, including stops in the north, the south, central Italy and the islands. We'll also be sharing a selection of wines to perhaps get you out of your comfort zone and into something new. Read on for wine recommendations from each locale and see if you can find these wines in your local shop or favorite online source.
Although Christmas markets can be found all over Italy, each one represents the unique crafts and culinary treats of its region. In Piedmont, the largest market takes place in the town of Santa Maria Maggiore in the Vigezzo Valley as seen below. Visitors can enjoy festive decorations, Christmas carols and local sweets. One beloved tradition specific to Piedmont is performing the tale of Gelindo, a shepherd from Monferrato who is said to have helped Mary and Joseph on their journey in the story of the birth of Jesus.
Another custom, which is seen in many other parts of Italy and Europe as well, is to have a fire burning in the fireplace. In Piedmont, the fire is traditionally started before Christmas Eve mass to welcome the baby Jesus. Some take it as a sign of good fortune for the new year if the fire remains burning after mass.
Neighboring Valle d’Aosta also celebrates the season with festive holiday markets, including the Marché Vert Noël which is set up in the ancient Roman Theater. And like many places in Italy, live nativity scenes can be seen in towns and villages. But unlike warmer Italian regions, Valle d’Aosta’s hills are covered in snow at Christmastime which means ski parades guided by torchlight in December and January. The parades usually end with fireworks and celebratory drinks, including Vin Brulé (an Italian mulled wine, despite the French name).
Agnolotti is the star pasta dish in Piedmont at Christmas, but risotto is also a favorite meal, whether made with a local Barolo or topped with a variety of cheeses. You'll also find the famous Italian sweet bread panettone as well as stincheèt, a thin flour sheet common at Christmas markets in the region.
Valle d'Aosta's position next to France and Switzerland means culinary influences like fondue are prevalent. Carbonade (beef cooked in wine) is another common Alpine dish which is often eaten on Christmas Day in the region. Warm, hearty soups like legumes with cabbage and onions are also favorites.
Valle d’Aosta and Piedmont Wines to Explore
Aside from some of the more famous Piedmont reds, here are a few new choices to enjoy by the fire: Dolcetto di Diano d’Alba DOCG and the wines of Alto Piemonte including the DOCs of Lessona and Carema.
For sparkling, there's always Asti Spumante, but if you want to try some different bubbles look for Brachetto d’Acqui / Acqui DOCG (the sparkling version!), Alta Langa DOCG or the sparkling version of Erbaluce di Caluso / Caluso DOCG, as it also comes in still and dessert style.
Valle d'Aosta is the smallest producer of wine in Italy and almost all of its wine is labeled under the single denomination Valle d'Aosta or Valle d'Aosta DOC. You'll find plenty of Nebbiolo (or Picotener as its called here) wines in the region as well as wines made from their leading white variety Prié Blanc.
You’ll continue to see nativity scenes as we venture into Tuscany, with different styles on display or acted out in each town. There are more Christmas markets to experience as well, one of the largest being in Montepulciano where you’ll find handmade gifts and ornaments, decorations and plenty of sweets and hot beverages. Also in Montepulciano is Poliziano Fortress, seen right, which becomes Santa’s castle where kids can get a chance to meet Santa and ice skate in the garden.
One uniquely Tuscan tradition is Gioco Del Panforte, a team game played in the town of Pienza which involves throwing panforte, wrapped cakes made of candied fruit, nuts and spices. The cakes are tossed onto a long table from a distance and must land without falling over the table's edge. The holiday season ends on January 6th with La Cavalcata dei Re Magi, a live procession of the three kings or three wise men who famously brought their gifts to baby Jesus.
A meat-free Christmas Eve dinner is, again, very common throughout Tuscany. Some families keep things simple with light pasta dishes and inexpensive fish, in the cucina povera style that is classically Tuscan. Others enjoy delicacies like grilled eel. And you might be surprised to learn that escargot is commonly served around the holidays in this region. As with much of Italy, while Christmas Eve dinner is kept light, the true feast occurs on Christmas Day and can include wild boar cooked in wine, local fowl or sausages.
For dessert, it may be tiramisu, torrone (nougat candy) and cookies like orange-scented befanini or ricciarelli made with almonds.
Tuscan Wines to Explore
Tuscany has 11 DOCGs and 41 DOCs so there is no shortage of wines to try. For starters, you might break from the norm and try Maremma Toscana DOC, which has something for everyone whether its red, white, sparkling or dessert. If you're looking for red in particular, find a Sangiovese-based Morellino di Scansano DOCG or Montecucco DOC. Elba DOC is a great option for any style, including white wines made from Trebbiano and Vermentino grapes.
In the dessert realm Central Italy, Tuscany in particular, is known for Vin Santo so a Vin Santo di Carmignano DOC or Vin Santo del Chianti DOC might be in order.
The Christmas markets (Mercatini di Natale) and nativity scenes continue as we head south to Puglia, with famous markets held each year in the towns of Bari and Ostuni. Live nativity performances are prevalent in Puglia where over 30 towns put on the traditional scenes. Bonfires honoring multiple saints are also a part of the festivities in December and January.
Puglia is also home to the Basilica di San Nicola. Saint Nicholas was born in Myra, Greece (now Demre, Turkey), but his remains were brought to this Bari church in 1087. Today this original Santa Claus figure is honored on December 6th with traditions that vary throughout Puglia and the rest of the country, including gifts and treats left out for children.
It should come as no surprise that skipping meat in favor of seafood for the Christmas Eve meal is the norm in Puglia. In fact, the well-known tradition of the Feast of the Seven Fishes originated in the South. Orecchiette with turnip tops and cavatelli pasta with seafood are also common for Christmas.
On the sweet side, classic Puglian Christmas desserts include pesce di pasta di mandorla (a dessert made by lining a fish shaped mold with almond paste then layering in ladyfinger cakes, then topping that with a cherry & chocolate filling and completing it with another layer of almond paste to complete the fish shape) and cartellate (basket-shaped fried dough dipped in warm wine and sprinkled with cinnamon, honey or nuts).
Puglian Wines to Explore
Starting with reds, look for Castel del Monte Nero di Troia Riserva DOCG or for white, look for the Verdeca grape—a great match with seafood dishes.
All of the Negroamaro-based rosato (rosé) in Italy actually comes from Puglia. There are a number of DOCs that produce these wines including Alezio DOC, Brindisi DOC, Salice Salentino DOC and Castel del Monte Bombino Nero DOCG, all refreshing enough to wash down seafood, but hearty enough if the air is chill.
As we mentioned in our Northern travels, the fireplace has historical significance during the holidays. In Sardinia, Christmas was always a special time of year where families could reunite and enjoy time together, as the men of the families were often away for months at a time tending to the livestock. Gathering around the fire together was, and continues to be, a Christmastime ritual.
Other Sardinian activities include telling scary stories as a way to teach children to be on good behavior, Christmas markets (highlights include markets in Cagliari, Iglesias, Sant’Antioco), and playing games on Christmas Eve. One game is very similar to the Hanukkah dreidel game and involves spinning a four-sided top called su barralliccu. It is perhaps derived from the Jewish tradition as Jewish settlements on the island can be traced back to the 1st century C.E.
Christmas foods in Sardinia will vary from family to family. Some carry on the theme of seafood, especially sea urchin, and others celebrate with malloreddus (narrow shell-shaped gnocchi typical of Sardinia) or suckling pig, for which Sardinia is also famous.
Around the holidays, Sardinians also enjoy sweet pastries like pabassinas (iced raisin and nut cookies flavored with anise and citrus), nuts and tangerines.
Sardinian Wines to Explore
Sardinia produces all wine styles but has only one DOCG and 17 DOCs. If you're interested in sparkling, the Vermentino di Gallura DOCG Spumante is tough to find but could be a crowd pleaser, and the fruit-driven, spicy Monica di Sardegna DOC says holiday spirit like a fragrant herbal wreath covered in cranberries and citrus fruit. For the white wine pick, seek out the complex Nuragus di Cagliari DOC, named after the famous and mysterious Nuraghi that dot the island.
Information compiled from the following sources: italiandelights.com, italymagazine.com, lacucinaitaliana.com, eataly.com, tuscany-villas.it, emikodavies.com, discovertuscany.com, ariajourneys.com, stnicholascenter.org, masseriailfrantoio.it, strictlysardinia.com, Volare Magazine, abcnews.go.com. Santa Maria Maggiore market photo courtesy, illagomaggiore.com; Poliziano Fortess photo courtesy, borgotrerose.it; San Nicola image courtesy, vaticannews.va.