Italy is a country that takes Christmas seriously! Traditionally a religious festival underpinned by the country’s predominantly Catholic background, a modern Italian Christmas is a blend of celebrations, opportunities to indulge in typical food and drink, and touching professions of faith.
The Northern European tradition of Christmas markets has also been embraced across Italy, but is particularly spectacular in the north of the country along the borders with its Germanic neighbors. Any visit to Italy during the holiday season should involve at least one Christmas-themed event and there’s no shortage of options—here are five ideas to get you into the festive mood.
Christmas markets in the South Tyrol
You may be surprised to know that an amazing 60% of the locals in Italy’s South Tyrol region speak German as their first language. This identification with the area’s northern roots extends to its traditions: the region’s two largest towns, Bolzano and Merano (known as Bozen and Meran by their German names, respectively), boast the area’s biggest and best Christmas markets.
Open from early December, they attract thousands of visitors in the lead-up to December 25. Italian Christmas markets have something for everyone, from gifts, local arts and crafts, and ornaments to delicious food and drink stalls that will really get you in the mood for an Italian Christmas, which goes on until January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany.
Lights festival in Turin
Several towns across Northern Italy pride themselves on their festive lights events. One of the biggest of these is the Luci d’Artista festival in Turin, which runs from mid-October to mid-January. The streets of Piedmont’s capital will be lit up by twenty luminescent works of art for the display, now in its 25th year. Designed by leading contemporary artists, the installations are artworks in their own right, creating a kind of open-air museum that comes to life every night between 6pm and midnight. Free to view, simply stroll around the city spotting your favorites or follow the online map.
Christmas tree in lights in Gubbio
The town of Gubbio in the central region of Umbria, known as Italy’s green heart, boasts a unique event: the world’s largest Christmas tree! Almost 2,500 feet high, it is marked out in lights on the slopes of Monte Ingino behind this small and extremely atmospheric city. You may even be lucky enough to see some snow! The tree is lit every year on December 7 by an important guest: in 2014, this honor went to Pope Francis. Gubbio it is also home to a large and charming Christmas market.
Experience a living Christmas Nativity scene
No Italian Christmas is complete without a Nativity scene or presepe, usually made from figurines or statues. These cribs are carefully set up in churches, squares, and homes around Italy during the holiday season. Representing the Holy Family in the stable, they come in all different sizes and can include countless other figures that reflect local customs.
Taking this tradition one step further, some Italian towns stage “living” cribs during the holiday season, in which participants in full costume dress as bakers, shepherds, noblemen, and even soldiers to represent every level of society. The world’s largest living Nativity scene takes place in the small village of Genga in Italy’s central Marche region and includes as many as 300 participants!
Indulge in specialty Christmas foods
Not an event as such, but Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas in Italy without the typical specialty treats that come out at this time every year. Two of the best known are panettone, usually dotted with dried fruit, and its plain cousin pandoro (literally, golden bread). Both are delicious and will warm you up from the inside out when the temperature drops.
Both types can be found across the country and are perfect paired with a cup of thick, steaming Italian hot chocolate (nothing like the milky stuff you’re used to!). If you’re in Rome and keen to try some of the world’s best panettone, head to Il Forno di Roscioli near Campo dei Fiori. The panettone varieties such as triple chocolate and sour cherry & white chocolate are unmissable!