10 Italian Christmas Traditions to Try This Holiday Season

Celebrate the season as the Italians do—with lots of music, merriment and food, of course

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The Christmas season is full of festivities, and nobody knows Noel quite like the Italians who have some very special and merry ways of celebrating the holiday. If you’re looking to branch out this year, these charming Italian Christmas traditions—including bagpipe music, midnight skiing and seafood feasts, to name a few—should give you all the inspiration you need.

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1. Feast of the Seven Fishes

In Italy, the Christmas Eve dinner is called the “feast of the seven fishes” and, as the name suggests, it’s a seven course meal featuring only seafood. Why no roast, you ask? Well, the meat-free tradition comes from the Roman Catholic custom of abstaining from meat on Christmas Eve in order to purify the body. The specifics of the menu vary from region to region, but some common courses include marinated anchovies, seafood soup, hearty roast fish and seafood pasta.

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2. Midnight Mass

After the feast of the seven fishes, Italian families flock to their local churches to attend midnight mass. Fun fact: According to, folks living in or near Rome can visit the Vatican for a free service held by the pope—though, in this case, “midnight mass” is a bit of a misnomer, since the event actually starts around 9:30 p.m.

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3. Bagpipe Music

If you head to the town square during the holidays, you’re likely to hear some folksy bagpipe carols. The musicians, known as zampognari, typically dress in traditional shepherd clothing as a nod to the shepherds who visited Jesus on the night he was born.

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4. Nativity Scene

In Italy, nativity scenes, or presepi, are no joke. In fact, they are typically hand-crafted by skilled artisans and look more like works of art than rinky dink displays. It’s also not uncommon to find large scale, ornate nativity scenes on display in the piazzas and churches in town.

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5. La Befana

Epiphany, which is celebrated on January 6, marks the end of the Christmas season…and the last round of gift giving. In fact, a second Santa Claus (of sorts) pays a visit to homes on this date. According to lore, la befana, or “the good witch,” stayed home cleaning house instead of following the three kings on their pilgrimage to visit the baby Jesus. Per tradition, she visits homes on January 6 to fill children’s stockings with goodies and sweep the hearth to remove bad luck for the coming year.

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6. Midnight Skiing

Given that the country is home to a portion of the Alps, it should come as no surprise that Italians love to ski. In Northern Italy, it is tradition for skiers to hit the slopes at midnight on Christmas Day, sometimes carrying torches to light their way as they ring in the holiday.

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7. Sweets, Sweets and More Sweets

If you have a sweet tooth, Italy is the place to be over the holidays. A wide range of desserts, like Christmas cookies and nougat fill the markets and bakeries. Most notably, though, are the Italian sweet breads (think: panettone) that make an appearance during the holiday season. Different regions have their own specialty, and many are more like cake than bread, but they’re all downright delicious. (Psst: Walks of Italy has a helpful guide to Italy’s Christmas breads if you want to know more.)

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8. Tombola

After finishing off the Christmas Eve feast, families gather around to play Tombola—the Italian version of Bingo. This raucous lottery-style game involves prizes and plenty of merrymaking. (Psst: Head to Italy Heritage to learn more about the tradition and the rules of the game.)

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9. Gift Exchanges

Christmas Day is when the big present opening extravaganza takes place stateside, but in Italy there is no designated day for exchanging gifts. While some Italian families open presents on Christmas Day, others do so on Christmas Eve or even earlier; and, in Northern Italy, legend has it that St. Lucia delivers gifts to be opened on December 13.

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10. Lighting the Christmas Tree

Just like in America, Christmas trees are a holiday staple in Italy…and they all tend to make an appearance on the same day. In Italy, December 8 is a traditional religious (and national) holiday that commemorates the Immaculate Conception. (Don’t think too hard about the gestation period.) It’s also the day that towns and cities all over the country erect and light a Christmas tree in the town square and Italian families do the same in their own homes.

What’s the Holiday Timeline in Italy?

Christmas is kind of a big deal in Italy and the celebrations aren’t limited to December 25. The Christmas season officially kicks off on December 8, which is also a national holiday known as Immacolata Concezione. And if you’re in Northern Italy on December 13, you should know that it’s a regional tradition to expect the arrival of gift-bearing St. Lucia on this day. The major Christmas celebrations, however, take place from December 24 through December 26. December 24 (i.e., Christmas Eve) is when you can expect a huge seafood feast; most of the gift opening (and more feasting) occurs on Christmas day; and December 26 is not Boxing Day, but rather St. Stephen’s Day—a holiday that’s reserved for spending time and sharing leftovers with family and friends. December 26 isn’t the end of the festivities, though: the holiday season doesn’t end until January 6, Epiphany Day, when la befana comes with still more gifts and goodies for children.

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