Celebrating Christmas in Italy, Part I

It’s Christmas time and Il Cedro Bed and Breakfast is decked and donned and full of holiday cheer.


The office …

and the kitchen …

It is delightful – just the way my home was back in Texas.

But things are different here.

As you might expect – or might not if you are as naive as me – Italy does things a little differently at Christmastime.

Today I present to you Part One of a four-part series on Celebrating Christmas in Italy*.

Since Italians refuse to actively celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday which propels Americans into the Christmas holiday season, they normally don’t decorate their homes until after the Immacolata on December 8. (Don’t worry, I’ll tell you about that next week!)

Christmas trees have gained popularity over the years, but the nativity scene, or presepe, is the traditional decoration of choice. There is no shortage of shops selling them, either. They range in price from €10 to hundreds of euros, depending on the size and brand. Many of them are collectibles that can be passed through the generations.

Last week I told my husband that I wanted to start our nativity scene collection.

“We should buy one or two pieces this year, then add to it every year,” I told him.

Blank look.

“I am thinking it will be around €50 per piece. Where is the best place to get them?”

Confused look. Then, “Well, why don’t we go ahead and buy the whole thing? We can get a whole set for way less than €50 at the store by our house.”

“The store by our house?” I asked him … shocked. “You mean the casalinga store?” (Casalinga stores are similar to luxury dollar stores back in the states.)

“Uhm … uhm …” he was getting nervous. “I guess you wanted to get a better one, huh?”

Smart man, that Italian!

In addition to starting the holiday season on the Immacolata and decorating with presepi, here are a few other notable differences between Christmas celebrations in Italy and America.

– There are very few outside decorations in Italy.

– Santa doesn’t stuff stockings – La Befana (the Christmas witch) brings them on the Epiphany (Jan 6).

– The local churches have a tour of their nativity scenes, with each one trying to outdo the next.

– Forget about pre-Christmas sales, they don’t exist. In fact, many Italians tell me prices rise before the holiday season.

If you are an expat, what are some of the differences between celebrating the holiday season in your new country and in your home country? If you aren’t an expat, what are some of your favorite holiday traditions?

Be sure to come back tomorrow for Celebrating Christmas in Italy, Part II. We’re talking food here, people!

* Please note that all of the customs and traditions I am referring to may be typical of southern Italy, specifically Calabria. I’m no expert on the other regions, but I hope those of you who are will chip in with your two centesimi!

14 Responses
  1. Irish Jen

    Thanks Cherrye for the insight!. I was wondering what the witch ornament was doing in Lucahs classroom, I knew she wasn’t there at Halloween….. So La Befana is a christmas witch…..umm I suppose better late then never. I’ll confuse this child totally.
    Ha. So you thought the same thing as me. I couldn’t figure out where this witch came from when I first came here in ’06!

  2. As an Expat, to me the biggest difference is the holiday is less commercialized here and for that I’m grateful. I haven’t heard of anyone getting trampled to death while shopping.

    I just posted photos yesterday of the Christmas market in Piazza Navona. The little buckets, farm animals etc. you can buy to decorate your presepi are so tempting. I might start one this year.
    I have to say it, NYC gal, I think you never hear of people getting trampled here because they don’t have any sales at Christmas. While I do *despise* that insanity where people get mauled for a $5.00 toaster, I love Christmas shopping and snagging a deal. Not too much of that down here. I’m going to read your post about the market in Piazza Navona. Sounds amazing!
    nyc/carribbean ragazza’s last blog post..Silvio B.’s misstep?

  3. I agree with ragazza, Christmas in Italy is much quieter than the UK and somehow seems all the more special for it.

    I love taking the children to see all the nativity scenes in the local churches, we go in the late afternoon when the churches are lit by candle light and it’s magical. So much better than gaping in the store windows.

    As for the presepi, it’s a national sport here! We have a great one on the go and add to it every year you can get some fantastic things in the local stores so don’t dismiss them! We got some gorgeous lanterns last year from COOP!! I would love to go to one of the presepi markets in Naples they are legendary. Do I sound obsessed…?
    I would love to go, too. We should all plan a trip next year! Fun. You have inspired me to start my nativity scene. Now if it would just stop raining!!
    Amanda @ A Tuscan View….’s last blog post..Something to ponder

  4. A Christmas witch?! Only n Italy, huh? And though I love to see houses decorated on the outside- it does get a little too crazy here in the US sometimes. Escpecially with the cheezy blow up stuff!! I do wish some would show a little restraint and try to conserve energy by not having EVERY light purchaed within a 3 state radius all lit up on the front lawn!!! I think I would appreciate that about Italy.

    Still might need at least a wreath or a little something outside 🙂

    Happy Christmas-ing!
    Yea, I agree with the conserving energy thing, but I love tasteful lights outside. I don’t even mind the blowup santas and whatnot. I like to see people getting in the spirit!
    My Melange’s last blog post..Salmon with French Lentils

  5. Stephanie

    Let us not forget the Pannetone? They give those crazy things for Christmas. I remember my sister-in-law in Sicily had 7 of them under her tree!!!! What the heck can you do with 7 Pannetone’s? “FRENCH TOAST”……yumm
    Ha! I didn’t forget, Stephanie. You got ahead of me… But yes. Can you say “overkill??” ha ha!!

  6. Looking forward to the series Cherrye!

    So far we’ve only spent one Christmas with Marco’s family. It was Christmas 2006, I was back living in the States. Flew in to Paris, arrived Christmas Eve morning. Took a nap, then Marco and I caught the train to Torino, arriving maybe about 8 or 10 pm Christmas Eve. The family marched over to a pizzeria near the train station and we chowed down. It didn’t seem that traditional, but we had a good time.

    The funny thing was that then, someone back home asked me about the Italian ‘traditions.’ I said, I don’t really know, I know that we went to eat pizza. And this person said, “They always eat fish on Christmas Eve!!!!” I had to respond, “that may be so, but I was with 8 Italians, and we had pizza, and the place was packed!”

    Marco’s mother only has a tiny presepio (?) which wouldn’t have even been noticeable among my mother’s riDICulous amount of christmas stuff. There’s got to be a happy balance somewhere!

    Looking forward to the next two posts!
    That is funny. My post tomorow is about the Christmas Eve dinner, actually … no mention of pizza! I love seafood, although I have to say I could go for some pizza right about now!
    Kim B.’s last blog post..Where I’m Taking My Mom Next Time She Visits

  7. carol

    Of course, Michelle’s article about *Christmas Alley* (as the locally based US military used to call it) is the perfect compliment to your post.
    Also, children’s author Tomie de Paola wrote a picture book about LaBefana, which explains the origin of the tradition.Super-summary: Befana was invited to join the 3 wisemen.Like the good nonna that she was,she declined because she had to sweep.Later,having a change of heart,she hopped on her broom,searching for the Christ child on her own.Hence,she wanders into every child’s home, hoping to find THE child,leaving gifts along the way. Buon Natale.
    Wonderful, Carol. Thanks for sharing. I would love to get my hands on that book!

  8. It’s so funny you mentioned teh no pre-Christmas sales. I was discussing my increasing distaste with Black Friday with my husband – the Wal-mart trampling thing really really upset me — and I was telling him how it’s a completely American concept to put things on sale before Christmas.
    That was horrible and it was very upsetting to me, as well. I don’t understand why people get crazy, though. Just like with some many other aspects of your life, you gotta have a little class, people. No fighting, pushing or trampling. Ridiculous.
    City Girl’s last blog post..Old World Hot Chocolate

  9. joanne at frutto della passione

    In the last 10 years there has been an increase in outdoor decorations. I think American movies have had a large influence on that. Dec 7 is Sant’Ambroggio so up in Milan it is an extra long holiday weekend and all the Christmas markets are in full swing.
    I think you are right on the influence American movies have on things like this. I have noticed a few more – stores and shops, not homes – in the last 3 years. Have a fun long holiday weekend. I wish I was closer!
    joanne at frutto della passione’s last blog post..And we’re off …

  10. j

    Christmas for me will always be Christmas Eve at my grandmothers house with the whole extended family and heaps of sausage and spaghetti and uncles sitting around smoking cigars and playing poker and aunts in the kitchen and cousins playing with new toys and then going to midnight mass.
    What fun memories, J. I love hearing about how Italian-Americans had spaghetti and whatnot. I had no idea about this until I dated a guy in college whose family had lasagna. “We’re Italians,” he told me when I asked what was up with the pasta!

  11. Reading through the comments, I have to add that P and I did pizza our first Christmas Eve together as well–I *loved* it, so Italian! Wanted it to be tradition…then the pizzeria shut down so I convinced him we should have *some* fish (not 7 or 13 types), so we’ve done that ever since. But if the pizzeria would open this year, I’d be all over it 🙂
    I read that the first time like you convinced the pizza guy … Whew. I need a break from thinking! lol
    michelle of bleeding espresso’s last blog post..when freelance writers get the christmas spirit…

  12. Qt

    In Italy there are two main school about Christmas food, the southern one more inclined to the dinner on Christmas eve (and sea food) and the northern that prefer the Christmas lunch (with less or no sea food). This even solve the problem about which mother/father in law join for the festivities, if one is from northern tradition and the other of the southern one… both. 😉
    Ha! Sounds good to me. Two families – two dinners … right?

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