Italy in Southern Europe is one of the most popular places to travel in the world. If you are going on a trip to Italy during the winter, you'll find the country celebrating Christmas and the holidays with special events and festivals. Italy's winter holiday season generally starts with the Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception on December 8, a national holiday, and runs through Epiphany—the 12th day of Christmas—on January 6. Then the Italian Carnevale (carnival) is celebrated throughout Italy in late winter. National holidays in winter are December 8, 25, and 26, and January 1 and 6.
Note: Book your trip to Italy for the holidays far in advance as airfare and hotel rates tend to be expensive (or sold out, if you wait too long).
In addition to nativity scenes, Christmas lights and trees are popular in Italy; decorations typically show up around December 8, the Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception, or in late November. In the Vatican City, a huge Christmas tree is put up in Saint Peter's Square along with a life-size nativity scene. Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are often spent with family, and big meals are prepared. There's usually a midnight mass on Christmas Eve. Saint Stephen's Day, the day after Christmas, is also a national holiday in which locals visit the Nativity scenes at the churches and attend carnivals, festivals, and markets around the country.
Shop in Italian Christmas Markets
Prior to the big holiday, Mercatino di Natale (Italian Christmas markets) start popping up in many cities and towns. These range from small local markets to huge daily Christmas markets in Naples that start around December 13, Santa Lucia Day. Some of the best Christmas markets are in the north, such as in the Trentino-Alto Adige region where there's German heritage. In Rome, Piazza Navona holds a huge fair with Babbo Natale, Father Christmas (or Santa Claus, as people in the U.S. call him). Those traveling more off the beaten path to the island of Sardinia will come across a Christmas Fair in Cagliari with traditional food, wine, and crafts over two weeks in December.
One of Italy's best destinations for holiday season travel is Rome, with a large Christmas market at Piazza Navona and impressive nativity displays around the city. Plus you'll usually find several lovely gigantic Christmas trees: Look in Saint Peter's Square, by the Colosseum, in Piazza Venezia, and in front of the Museums on the Capitoline Hill. The Vatican, the heart of the Catholic religion, is always decorated and festive for Christmas. Additionally, you can take the kids to an outdoor ice skating rink by Castel Sant'Angelo (also the site of a small Christmas market).
Traditionally, the main focus of Christmas decorations in Italy is the presepe, a Nativity scene or Christmas crib, said to have originated with Saint Francis. The craft of carving nativity figures started in the 13th century; if you'd like to see the oldest permanent Christmas crib, head to the museum of Santa Maria Maggiore Church in Rome. Naples, famous for making nativity figures, is the top place to see nativity scenes. Some towns have elaborate nativity displays in the main piazza, and churches, public places, and shops are fine nativity-viewing spots as well.
Attend Presepi Viventi (Living Nativities)
Nativity pageants around the country often take place for several days, on December 24 to 26 and again for Epiphany—the 12th day of Christmas, celebrated on January 6—when the three Wise Men gave their gifts to Baby Jesus. People in costumes act out the parts for the nativity, some with as many as 500 participants. Pageants held on Epiphany often include a procession to the Cathedral. Favorite places to see the living nativities include: Greccio, Umbria; Barga, northern Tuscany; Milan; Equi Terme, in the Lunigiana region of northern Tuscany, and more.
If you are in Italy for Christmas, there's a good chance you will be in the European country to also welcome in the New Year. La Festa di San Silvestro, or New Year's Eve, is celebrated December 31. Fireworks, music, and dancing are part of the festivities in many towns, with parties often lasting until sunrise to bring in the first morning of the new year. In Rome's Piazza del Popolo, large crowds dance to rock and classical music and enjoy a fireworks show; near the Colosseum on Via di Fori Imperiali is another prime spot for festivities. Don't miss Piazzale Fellini in Rimini for a big festival featuring waterfront fireworks, entertainment, music, and dancing. As usual in Italy, food is one of the stars of the holiday—loved ones gather for big feasts. Typically lentils are served on New Year’s Eve as they symbolize money and good fortune for the coming year; don't forget to wear your red underwear for good luck as well. With many happenings going on in towns throughout the country, plan your visit and parking in advance.
Epiphany, January 6, is a national holiday and the day children traditionally receive their gifts—not from Santa Claus, but from La Befana—an elderly woman (some call her a witch) who flies around on a broomstick the night of January 5. She delivers toys and sweets to children who have behaved, and those who have been bad receive lumps of coal. Children hang up their stockings on January 5 before they go to bed and hope to find them filled with goodies the next morning.
On the religious side, living nativities and processions often take place for Epiphany. In Vatican City, hundreds of pilgrims dressed in ancient costume parade to the Vatican for a special morning mass.
Carnevale, also known as Carnival or Mardi Gras, is celebrated in many places around the world 40 days before Easter; it's a final party before Ash Wednesday and the restrictions of Lent. Italy celebrates Carnevale with a huge winter festival full of parades, entertainment and music, masquerade balls, and parties. Venice is famous for its Carnevale celebrations, and events mainly around Piazza San Marco often include costume parties, elaborate masks, and parades. You'll also find gondola and boat parades along the Grand Canal. On the Tuscany coast, Viareggio has one of the largest Carnevale celebrations in the country, with parades boasting huge paper maché floats and a massive fireworks show. Typically from January through March, you'll find street parties throughout Italy. Festivities may start two to four weeks before the actual Carnevale date.
Walk Through Christmas Villages
The cities of Venice and Milan go above and beyond to create whole Christmas villages that people of all ages enjoy. The Campo Santo Stefano neighborhood of Venice becomes a charming holiday town each December: The piazza hosts wooden houses and stalls selling local handicrafts, along with regional food and drinks, plus music and special events. Milan's historic town center transforms into the Wonderland Village from early December through January 6. You'll find an ice-skating rink, a market, and entertainment.
Festival of Torches
The Festival of Nemoralia, usually called the Festival of Torches, was an ancient Roman celebration honoring Diana, goddess of the hunt and moon; Catholics later adopted it and called it the Feast of the Assumption. Various cities in Italy celebrate both traditions with Festival of Torches events. On Christmas Eve, the Fiaccole di Natale (Festival of Christmas Torches) is celebrated with carols and torchlight processions in Abbadia di San Salvatore, near Montalcino. At midnight on Christmas Eve, Cortina d'Ampezzo in the Alps celebrates this religious holiday in a unique way: Hundreds of people ski down a peak carrying torches in honor of the winter season.