Our Favorite Italian Christmas Traditions and Italian New Year Traditions
What if Christmas lasted a month rather than a single day? In Italy, it does! The Italian holiday season is their culture at its best. Italian Christmas traditions and Italian New Year traditions are full of delicious food, slow living, and celebration of family.
Rather than centering sales and mountains of presents, the Italian holiday season is all about appreciating the sweetest parts of life. Spreading out the celebration lightens the pressure and lets everyone enjoy themselves.
Italian Christmas Traditions Span an Entire Month!
Christmas is a season rather than a single day in Italy. Across the country, people traditionally celebrate Christmas with a series of festivities that run from December 8th through January 6th.
The Italian Christmas season begins with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8th . This public holiday marks Mary’s conception of Jesus and is often when families will set up and decorate their Christmas trees.
On Christmas Eve, people gather for a meal and many families will attend Midnight Mass. The entire Christmas season in Italy is informed by the country’s Catholic culture.
On Christmas Day, there are big family gatherings, presents, and lots of food. Many people play tombola, a version of Italian bingo.
The day after Christmas, December 26th, is another public holiday, il giorno di Santo Stefano (St. Stephen’s Day). Italians use this day to visit with friends and family, eat Christmas leftovers, and slowly transition out of the holiday.
Christmas officially ends on January 6th with the Feast of the Epiphany. There is a tradition in Italy that La Befana, the good witch who got lost on her way to the manger, brings sweets to good children on the Epiphany and sweeps the family hearth to give them a clean start to the new year.
With an entire month of celebrations, Christmas season in Italy is full of moments to gather with friends and family, enjoy the holidays, and, of course, eat lots of delicious food!
Italian Food Traditions For Christmas Celebrations
Italians value good food all year long, and they especially love a reason to gather with family for a meal full of celebratory foods. Christmas is one of the best.
In the southern part of Italy, the big meal of the holiday is often Christmas Eve dinner. In the northern and central regions people tend to have a large lunch on Christmas Day. In either case, families enjoy a multi-course meal that moves from antipasti, to pasta, to roast meat and side dishes, before ending with dessert. This traditional Italian meal structure provides lots of time to enjoy the company of your family and the incredible food.
In the United States, the Christmas Eve “Feast of the Seven Fishes” is a tradition for Italian-American families. Though it’s assumed to be universal in Italy as well, the meal is actually an American tradition. Fish is found on Christmas tables in Southern Italy, but only one or two kinds.
Dessert is a key component of Italian Christmas celebrations, and each region has its own special Christmas sweets. Going beyond your classic Christmas cookies, these desserts include:
- Panettone - Originally from Milan in Northern Italy, this naturally leavened bread is full of candied fruit. Because the bread is so light and airy, panettone has to be cooled upside down to keep it from collapsing or becoming too dense.
- Pandoro - First made in Verona in Northern Italy, Pandoro is a star-shaped, sweet yeast bread flavored with citrus and vanilla. This dessert was first made in the 1500s, and is said to be modeled off the mountains in the countryside near Verona.
- Torrone - Torrone is a nougat made from honey and whipped egg whites filled with nuts, often almonds. There are many regional variations of torrone that range from soft and spongy to hard and crunchy.
- Struffoli - A classic Christmas dessert from Naples, struffoli are small balls of fried dough coated in honey sauce. This sweet, sticky treat is often shaped into a wreath and decorated with colored sugar and sprinkles.
Italian New Year Traditions Are All About Luck and Wealth
In Italy, New Year's is also filled with tradition. People try to guarantee a year full of luck and wealth by feasting on certain foods and participating in special activities.
Red is seen as a luck bringing color in Italian culture. Wearing red on New Year’s is traditional, and those who want to be extra lucky will wear red underwear.
The traditional New Year’s meal in Italy is made up of pork and lentils. Pork is a rich meat that will lead to a rich year for the eater and lentils look like coins. The pork on New Year’s is generally enjoyed as cotechino, a cooked sausage, or zampone, a deboned pork trotter stuffed with sausage. In Piedmont and other areas of Northern Italy, people often eat risotto on the New Year because they believe that rice symbolizes coins and wealth.
Many Italian families also have a tradition of eating grapes on New Year's Eve. As the clock strikes twelve, they eat a grape for each hour struck. This tradition dates back to when grapes were only available during the fall harvest. People would save grapes to enjoy on New Year’s, which turned them into a symbol of willpower and indication of wise and frugal spending in the upcoming year. Others will enjoy seven different nuts and dried fruits for luck: almonds, hazelnuts, peanuts, walnuts, raisins and dried figs. An easy way to bring this tradition to your family is with Nicola’s Biscotti full of nuts and dried fruit.
All of these Italian New Year’s traditions center around having a lucky, wealthy New Year. They bring families together over delicious food to start the year off right.
In Italy, the holiday season is a time for friends, family, food, and hopefully a bit of luck. Across the country, people take advantage of the season to gather together and enjoy the best that life has to offer. Here at Nicola’s, we hope that you’re able to do the same, and that you might be inspired to add an Italian flair to your celebrations this year!