Every country has its own Christmas traditions, but there is nothing quite like the way Italians celebrate the holidays. Italians don’t do anything half-way. It’s all the way, or nothing, especially in Southern Italy and Sicily, where hearty peasant stock gave rise to a deeply passionate and often boisterous people who heartily embrace their celebrations, and fervently insist that that guests do, too.

Of course, food plays a crucial part in any Italian celebration, and Christmas is no exception. No matter which part of the Italian Christmas traditions you take part of, there’s guaranteed to be plenty to eat. A surplus of food. Troppo a mangiare!

So, whether you’re traveling to Italy for the holiday season, or simply celebrating with some Italian friends at home, here are some ideas for adding a little bit of Buon Natale flair to your Christmas season.

The Feast of St. Nicholas

There is more to the Italian holiday season than just Christmas Day itself. For many, the celebration commences weeks before on December 7th with La Festa di San Nicola, which honors the real St. Nicholas, the patron saint of the southern Italian city of Bari. Starting on the 7th, the bones of St. Nicholas begin a journey around the city’s bay then proceed to a procession through the streets. Celebrants dressed in 11th century costumes follow the relics in a solemn procession. After the procession, the celebration begins, replete with plenty of food, plus music, dance, and theater performances.

The legend of St. Nicholas holds that his parents died when he was young, leaving him a small fortune, which he pledged to donate to charitable causes. He once came across three young women who were too poor to secure advantageous marriages. Nicholas apparently threw a bag of gold into their house one night, providing the young women with a dowry. This story eventually developed into that of Father Christmas leaving deserving people presents on Christmas Eve.

The Nativity

While Americans will spend time decorating their Christmas trees, Italians will spend more time on their nativity scenes, or presepi. The family creates a small or large replica of the creche to represent Mary and Joseph and the arrival of the baby Jesus born on Christmas Day. Presepi can be as simple as just the main figures, or as elaborate as the entire barn scene with a figurine for every character.

You’ll see nativity scenes all over the typical Italian house, as well and in churches and town squares and pretty much all over the city. They come in all kinds of shapes and sizes: some are small and simple, others are elaborate and life-size, and there’s everything in between.

The Feast of the Seven Fishes

There is no doubt that Italians know how to serve up one delicious meal, but even more so on Christmas. Food is a vital centerpiece in the Italian life and Christmas foods are strictly prepared. On Christmas Eve, no meat is served, only fish and vegetables, much like on Fridays during Lent. Italians believe they are purifying their bodies for the feast to come the next day. Many families start things off with a salad of oranges and black oliveswhich is actually a lot more delicious than it sounds, especially when you don’t use canned olives.

The main meal on Christmas Eve is usually a combination of various fish, such as insalata di frutti di mare, or “salad of the fruit of the sea,” which features a mixture of various fish and shellfish, including some combination of mussels, shrimp, scallops, squid, and sometimes octopus. For the truly traditional Christmas Eve dinner, there’s festa dei sette pesci, or feast of the seven fishes. The actual fish on the menu tends to vary, but at its origins, the seven fishes feast included marinated anchovies, sea bass soup, fish tartare, seafood pasta, grilled fish, baked fish, and fish with fennel and olives. For the more adventurous, there’s lobster fra diavolo, or “brother of the devil,” so named because of the extremely spicy nature of this linguine and tomato sauce dish.

Many, Many Courses on Christmas Day

At a typical Italian Christmas Day feast, you have to be careful to pace yourself. There are so many courses throughout the meal, many Italians never even get to the main course, let alone have room for dessert. It starts with the antipasto, which is a bountiful course of cheeses, olives, pickles, roasted peppers, marinated mushrooms, artichoke hearts, and dried meats, including prosciutto, capicola, mortadella, and soppressata. (Insider tip: go for the cheap prosciutto. The delicate taste of the fine but pricey Parma prosciutto gets lost in the intense flavors of a typical antipasto.)

Next is usually some kind of soup course, traditionally escarole soup, made from hearty leafy escarole greens in a chicken stock, often with some kind of small-piece pasta and cannellini or garbanzo beans, all covered with lots of Parmesan cheese. The soup course is typically followed by a pasta course, often manicotti or shells stuffed to bursting with ricotta cheese. Then for the main course – for anyone who makes it that far – the centerpiece could be anything from turkey to ham to leg of lamb, or even rabbit in more rural areas.

As for dessert, well, we could devote an entire post to Italian Christmas sweets. Of course, there’s panettone, a yeasted sweet bread with dried fruits. Another favorite is pizzelle, thin waffle-like cookies dusted with powdered sugar. And with the coffee/espresso/cappuccino course, there’s usually plates and plates of all sorts of different kinds of sweets, including totos (chocolate spice cookies), ricciarelli (almond cookies), and torrone (nougats with almonds). And, of course, many different kinds of cannoli, fried pastry tubes filled with a sweet blend of ricotta and mascarpone cheeses.

Oh, and all along, across all meals and all celebrations: vino! Lots and lots of vino!

Do you have a favorite Italian Christmas tradition? Let us know in the comments below. 

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About The Author

Chris Caggiano is a writer and editor with decades of experience in a wide variety of topics. His real love is the theater, but he also enjoys visiting art museums, riding roller coasters, snow skiing, and collecting Swedish glass and eccentric teapots. Chris is also a theater critic and a long-standing member of the Outer Critics Circle. Chris graduated from Boston College, much longer ago than he cares to admit. And more than anything, he loves his Cocker Spaniel, Oscar.