Christmas season in Italy is traditionally celebrated December 24-January 6, or Christmas Eve through Epiphany. This follows the pagan season of celebrations that started with Saturnalia, a winter solstice festival and ended with the Roman New Year, the Calends. However many events start on December 8, the Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception, and you'll sometimes see Christmas decorations or markets even earlier than that.
Italian Christmas Traditions
Babbo Natale (Father Christmas, or the equivalent of Santa Claus) makes the rounds on the night before Christmas, but another important day for gift-giving is Epiphany on January 6. It's the 12th day of Christmas, when the three Wise Men gave Baby Jesus their gifts. In Italy, presents are brought by a friendly old witch named La Befana, who arrives in the night to fill children's stockings.
Christmas trees, lights, and decorations are often seen starting around December 8, the Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception, or even the end of November. The main focus of decorations continues to be the presepe, Nativity scene or creche. Almost every church has a presepe and they are often found outdoors in a piazza or public area, too.
Traditionally, a fish dinner is eaten on Christmas Eve with the family, followed in many places by a living nativity scene and midnight mass. Traditional bonfires are often held on Christmas Eve in the main square of the town, especially in mountain areas. Dinner on Christmas day is usually meat-based.
Christmas Trees, Lights, Nativity Cribs, and Christmas Celebrations in Italy:
Although you'll find Christmas celebrations all over Italy, these are some of the most unusual or most popular celebrations, events, and decorations.
Naples is one of the best cities to visit for Nativity displays. Naples and southern Italy have other Christmas traditions, including the Christmas Eve dinner of the seven fish dishes, although it doesn't really have to be seven fishes – often times it's more – and not everyone serves it.
Bagpipe and flute players, zampognari and pifferai, are a part of Christmas celebrations in Rome, Naples, and southern Italy. They often wear traditional colorful costumes with sheepskin vests, long white stockings, and dark cloaks. Many of them travel from the mountains of the Abruzzo region to play outside churches and in popular city squares.
Rome is another top city to visit during the Christmas season. There's a large Christmas market, nativity displays, and several huge Christmas trees.
Saint Peter's Square in Vatican City hosts the popular midnight mass given by the Pope inside Saint Peter's Basilica. Those in the square see it on a big-screen TV. At noon on Christmas Day, the Pope gives his Christmas message from the window of his apartment overlooking the square. A large tree and nativity scene are erected in the square before Christmas.
Torino, in northern Italy's Piemonte region, is one of the best places for lights. More than 20 kilometers of streets and squares are illuminated by some of the best illumination artists in Europe from late November through early January.
Verona, the city of Romeo and Juliet, is decorated with hundreds of lights. An illuminated arch with a huge star points to the Christmas market and in the Roman Arena is a display of nativity scenes.
Near the top of Monte Ingino, above Gubbio in central Italy's Umbria region, shines a huge Christmas tree, 650 meters tall and made up of more than 700 lights. The tree is topped by a star that can be seen for nearly 50 kilometers. Tree lights are turned on every year on December 7, the evening before the feast of the Immaculate Conception.
Città di Castello, in Umbria, celebrates Christmas Eve on the Tiber River. Towards evening, a group of canoeists, each dressed as Father Christmas, with their canoes illuminated by lights, make their way along the river to the bridge at Porta San Florido where a cradle is suspended over the water. When they get out of their canoes, they give small presents to the children gathered there.
Manarola in Cinque Terre has a unique ecological nativity powered by solar energy.
In Abbadia di San Salvatore, near Montalcino, the Fiaccole di Natale or Festival of Christmas Torches (Christmas Eve) is celebrated. Carols and torchlight processions in memory of the shepherds from the first Christmas Eve.
Cortina d'Ampezzo in the Alps celebrates with a skiers torchlight parade. At midnight on Christmas Eve, hundreds of people ski down an Alpine peak carrying torches.
Italian Christmas Markets
Although Christmas Markets in Italy are not as big as in Germany, Italian Christmas Markets are held many places, from big cities to small villages. They may last from a couple of days to a month or longer, often going through Epiphany on January 6. The Italian for Christmas market is Mercatino di Natale.
Top Italian Christmas Markets in Northern Italy
Trentino-Alto Adige Region in northern Italy is one of the best regions for Christmas markets with its proximity to Germany. Many mountain towns hold Christmas markets selling everything from tacky items to beautiful local handicrafts. After dark, the markets are decorated with lights and there are often other festivities to enjoy.
Trento, in the Trentino-Alto Adige Region, holds one of the best Christmas markets in a beautiful setting starting near the end of November and going for a month. The market includes more than 60 traditional wooden huts selling a variety of crafts, decorations, and food in Piazza Fiera. A large Nativity Scene is created in Piazza Duomo, too.
Bolzano, also in Trentino-Alto Adige, holds a daily market from the end of November through December 23 selling crafts and decorations in the historic center.
Campo Santo Stefano in Venice becomes a Christmas village in December with wooden houses set up in the piazza and stalls selling high-quality Venetian handicrafts. There's also regional food, drink, and music.
Verona holds a huge German-style Christmas Market with wooden stalls selling handicrafts, decorations, regional foods, and German specialties, usually starting in late November through December 26 in Piazza dei Signori. The city is illuminated with hundreds of lights and a display of nativities is held in the Roman Arena.
Trieste, in northeastern Italy's Friuli-Venezia Giulia region, holds its market, Fiera di San Nicolo, the first week of December. The market sells toys, candy, and Christmas items. In the same region, Pordenone holds a market December 1-24.
Milan hosts a Wonderland Village in the historic center from early December through January 6 with a market, ice-skating rink, and entertainment. Oh Bej, Oh Bej is a big market with several hundred stalls held near Castello Sforzesco on December 7 and a few days before or after.
Bologna holds a Christmas market in the historic center from late November through early January.
Torino holds a Mercatino di Natale during December in the Borgo Dora area. Stalls selling a variety of merchandise are open all week and on the weekends there's music and entertainment for children.
Genoa holds a week-long Christmas and winter fair in December with exhibitions of arts and handicraft products and other items for sale.
Top Italian Christmas Markets in Central Italy
Rome's Piazza Navona hosts a big Christmas Market, though it's heavy on cheap souvenirs. Babbo Natale makes appearances for picture taking opportunities and there is a life-size nativity scene set up in the piazza later in December.
Frascati, a wine town in the Castelli Romani south of Rome, holds a traditional Christkindlmarkt from December through January 6, with many stands open during the day and until 9:30 pm.
In Florence, Piazza Santa Croce holds a popular German-style Christmas market with many booths from the end of November to a few days before Christmas.
Lucca, in northern Tuscany, holds a Christmas market in Piazza San Michele, usually through December 26. Find out more about Christmas markets and shopping in Lucca and on the Versilia Coast in Christmas in Northern Tuscany.
Siena, in Tuscany, holds several Christmas markets during December. Other Tuscany towns with big markets include Arezzo, Montepulciano, and Pisa.
Perugia, in Umbria, holds its Christmas market in the Rocca Paolina for three weeks in December. Spoleto also holds a big market.
Top Italian Christmas Markets in Southern Italy
Naples holds a December Christmas market near Via San Gregorio Armeno, known for its many nativity workshops. For the Christmas market, some vendors dress in traditional shepherd costume.
Sorrento, on the beautiful Amalfi peninsula in the Bay of Naples, holds a Christmas market through January 6 in the main square.
Syracuse, Sicily, holds a two-week Christmas Fair starting the first or second weekend of December.
Cagliari, Sardinia, also holds a Christmas Fair for two weeks in December with traditional crafts, food, and wine.