Fun facts and Peculiar Italian Christmas Traditions

December is the month of Christmas and, in Italy, every region celebrates it with very peculiar traditions and habits. We’ll find out about them in this lesson!

Christmas in the various Italian regions: a festive cultural mosaic

1. VALLE D’AOSTA

Among the most interesting Christmas traditions in Valle d’Aosta, there is the festival of micooula bread (in the local dialect, “a little small and a little special”), prepared specifically during the Christmas season and made with chestnuts, walnuts, raisins, and dried figs.

The tradition originates from a legend: as customary, on Christmas Eve, a woman named Rosa was heading to church for the Mass. Being late, she took a shortcut through the woods and found herself in front of an old abandoned mill, known to be the dwelling place of spirits, witches, and other evil creatures. However, the woman was not frightened because she knew that God was watching over her. So, when a huge snake appeared before her, threatening her, Rosa asked what it wanted in order to find the lost path. The snake asked her for a piece of bread from the Church in exchange for her life. Rosa agreed, and upon returning from the Church, she gave the blessed bread to the snake. After consuming it, the snake transformed into a white dove that soared into the sky.

2. PIEMONTE

In Piemonte, the tradition of the Ceppo di Natale is well-known. It is a log decorated with candles, which is lit on Christmas Eve.

But it became so popular that… it has also become a dessert! In fact, it is very common to prepare a sweet log for the Christmas lunch, made with chocolate, cream, brandy… Probably, this tradition has been influenced by France (close to Piemonte), where the Bûche de Noël is very common for Christmas.

3. LOMBARDIA

The famous Christmas panettone, a leavened cake full of candied fruit and raisins, was born in Lombardia, and here, even more than in the rest of Italy, it is a must-have for the Christmas Eve dinner (and lunch).

But how was the panettone born? There are various legends about it. The most credited one tells that panettone was born by mistake during the Christmas lunch prepared for Ludovico il Moro (15th century). The court chef had forgotten the dessert he was preparing in the oven, letting it burn. However, the servant Toni found a solution to still serve it: he added butter, raisins, and candied fruit to the salvageable dough! This gave rise to “Pan di Toni,” which later became “panettone”.

4. TRENTINO-ALTO ADIGE

In Trentino, there’s a celebration known as Krampuslauf, a parade of Krampus (demonic figures with sharp teeth and long horns). These figures march throughout the streets of the cities, frightening both young and old people, but above all, discouraging the naughty behavior of children during the Christmas season.

5. VENETO

In Venice, especially in the past, the figure of the Befana was more popular than the one of Santa Claus. Children, in fact, didn’t expect gifts from Santa Claus but from the old lady, the “Marantega“, who, on the night between January 5th and 6th, filled children’s stockings with small gifts, sweets, candies, dried fruits, mandarins, and, for the naughtier ones, even a piece of coal.

Therefore, every year in Venice, the Regata della Befana is organized, a ceremony that is definitely unique compared to the Befana celebrations in the rest of Italy.

6. FRIULI-VENEZIA GIULIA

The most fascinating tradition, ancient but still alive and deeply felt today, is the one of the Pignarûi. The Pignarûl seems to be linked to the worship of Beleno (or Belanu), an ancient deity of light. Beleno was one of the main gods for pagans, for whom sacrifices and rituals were performed. Among these there was the lighting of bonfires on the hilltops, perhaps also in honor of his companion, Belisma, the goddess of fire.

So even today, after centuries, in the evening of January 5th and especially in the evening of January 6th, Friuli is illuminated with hundreds of bonfires.

7. LIGURIA

A unique Christmas tradition in Liguria is linked to the figure of Andrea Doria, an admiral, politician, and Italian nobleman of the Republic of Genoa in the 15th century. According to the legend, Andrea Doria engaged Genoa’s pastry chefs to invent a dessert that symbolized the wealth of the city. This dessert had to have specific requirements: it had to be nourishing and with long-term preservation, so that it could be transported by sailors on their long sea trips. The dessert was meant to fill the sailors with a sense of nostalgia and showcase the city’s power to foreign populations. Thus, the Genoese pandolce was born: a kind of leavened bread enriched with candied fruit, raisins, pine nuts, and fennel seeds.

8. EMILIA-ROMAGNA

It’s no surprise or news that the food in Bologna is excellent. The same goes for Christmas, when the typical meal includes all the dishes of the Bolognese tradition, such as homemade lasagna or the traditional tortellini in broth.

But did you know that for Christmas, tortellini also become sweet? In fact, a typical dessert in the region for Christmas is the Christmas tortelli (or tortellini), sweet pastries filled with jam or custard, which are then fried or baked.

9. TOSCANA

The most distinctive Christmas tradition in Toscana is the preparation of Panforte, a dessert that resembles the shape of bread but is denser, with dried fruits and spices, often exchanged as a Christmas gift.

10. UMBRIA

Did you know that in Umbria, there is the world’s biggest Christmas tree? It is located in Gubbio: it is indeed massive and majestic, but it’s actually made up of colorful lights arranged in the shape of a Christmas tree (with a shining star on top) that light up the side of Mount Ingino, the mountain overlooking the town.

The first lighting took place on December 7, 1981, and since then, it has become an annual traditional event, attracting thousands of tourists.

11. MARCHE

An existing tradition throughout Italy but deeply rooted in the Marche region is the one of living nativity scenes. The birth of Christ is recreated with real people throughout the historic centers of various cities.

Also in the Marche region, on Christmas, people enjoy Christmas pizza! Nothing strange, it’s a sweet, leavened, spiced bread similar to those mentioned in other regions.

12. LAZIO

At Christmas, everyone is (perhaps) a bit kinder, and people eat more than usual, at least in Italy. But one of the richest and most interesting Christmas culinary traditions in Italy is found in Lazio, especially in Rome.

In Rome “se magna”! And “se magna” well too!

It is a tradition in Lazio not to eat meat for the Christmas Eve dinner (the so-called ‘Cenone‘). Therefore, especially in the past, there was a traditional ritual, the one of the “cottio” shopping: in the evening of December 23rd, Roman women went to the fish market to buy the best fish to prepare for the next day. The traditional Christmas Eve menu includes: fried or stewed cod, dogfish in broccoli broth, spaghetti with clams, mixed fried shrimp and squid accompanied by battered vegetables.

The typical Roman dessert for Christmas is “pangiallo” (dating back to imperial Rome), made with a mixture of honey, dried fruit, and saffron, giving it its characteristic yellow color.

13. ABRUZZO

For over 400 years in Lanciano (in the province of Chieti), Christmas begins one day earlier, on December 23rd, with the tradition of “Squilla“.

On this day, after the sunset, the streets of the city gets filled with people coming and going, and at 6 pm, the bell on the civic tower starts ringing, signaling to all the bells of the other churches in the city that, an hour later, will begin to ring to mark the start of the celebration.

The origins of the ‘Squilla’ date back to 1607 when Paolo Tasso, the archbishop of Lanciano, began a penitential pilgrimage on December 23rd to the church of Iconicella, a couple of kilometers away from the center, to retrace the journey of Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem. The journey was accompanied by the peal of the “squilla”, the sound of the church bells.

14. MOLISE

In Molise, there’s also a special Christmas tradition of preparing a sweet bread, the “Pane di Natale“, with raisins and spices.

15. CAMPANIA

In Naples, there is the “Via dei Presepi” (Street of Nativity Scenes), a street with a Christmas atmosphere all year round!

The real name is Via San Gregorio Armeno, and it is located in Spaccanapoli. This street is full of workshops of artisans who handcraft nativity scene figurines, ranging from the most traditional to the most original and weird (including, for example, famous figures from sports, politics, current events…).

16. PUGLIA

Christmas in Puglia is marked by roses… sweet ones at that! It’s a typical Christmas dessert called “Cartellate“, made with strips of dough rolled into rosette shapes, then fried and coated with honey or ‘vincotto’ (cooked wine).

17 – 18. BASILICATA / CALABRIA

Christmas in these two regions is, more than in others, illuminated by the fire of bonfires, present in almost every city. They are lit especially on the evening of December 24th: people attend Mass, and after the service, they gather by the bonfires to exchange greetings and enjoy some sweets.

Why the fire? Both to symbolize the destruction of negative things that occurred during the year and also to evoke a sense of warmth to comfort the newborn child.

19. SICILIA

If you spend Christmas in Sicily, you can’t miss the Cuccidati” (in dialect), cookies filled with figs, nuts, and jam, often decorated with icing.

20. SARDEGNA

The bagpipe is associated with Christmas almost everywhere, but the tradition of this instrument is particularly strong in Sardinia, where some bagpipers go regularly every year to cheer the streets and events in the cities.

We hope that this article has been helpful for exploring Italian culture, but mainly, for learning about the different traditions of Italian regions. To delve deeper into the topic, you can read the article on Christmas movies, which will help you further immerse yourself in the Italian festive traditions.

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