Italy has many nice ways, big and small, to enjoy the Christmas season. There is no better time to visit Italy’s illustrious cities than during the Christmas season.
The holidays kick off with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception – L’Immacolata Concezione – on December 8th. This day is dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Don’t start trying make the dates jive with a December 25th or a March birth date (as scholars think) for Jesus , the feast is to commemorate Mary’s own conception. It is so important in Italy that the day is a national holiday. This leaves workers and students free from their obligations so they may attend special Mass services, as good Catholics are encouraged.
Anyone looking to travel in Italy during the holidays needs to prepare for a few lovely things. For starters: try the Panettone.
Panettone – a bread with nuts, raisins and just a hint of sweetness – was first made in Milan but has since become a staple of the Holiday season in Italy. It is not uncommon for families to receive so many loaves from their friends or relatives that they end up giving them away – Italy’s own socially-acceptable form of re-gifting.
Don’t worry about finding a place to buy it because stumbling across a shop that does not sell panettone during the holidays would be its own miracle. Those who happen to pass through Milan should try the Pasticceria Marchesi, a shop that has been cited numerous times as one of the best in the city for panettone. A final note of advice: this bread is only slightly sweet, thus Italians tend to eat is as a snack rather than dessert. In other words: enjoy this treat any time of the day.
Roaming alongside the shoppers in Rome are the Zampognari. These rustic appearing men with their strange instruments serenade throughout Italy during the holidays. These musicians uphold the tradition of the shepherds who heralded the birth of Jesus. Having brought their flocks down from the mountain meadows for the winter, they play music in the streets to celebrate the advent of Christmas. Their music is unmistakable. They play a kind of bagpipe, zampogna, that squeals and whines and drones and, personally puts a lump, in my throat at the beauty of these traditions that reach across the centuries. They remind us of our childhood holidays in Italy when we would run outside to greet them all dressed in their sheep skins while they played their strange music.
All these traditions lead up the Christmas Eve, the highlight of which for many visitors is undoubtedly attending midnight Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica. Here the faithful can celebrate the season with Pope Francis himself.
In Italy, Christmas Eve and Christmas day are about something we all love: food!
A traditional Italian Christmas Eve meal, born in the Southern regions, is known as the Feast of the Seven Fishes, more or less. There is essentially only one rule for this meal, that is that is must be fish. Some families have seven courses, others opt for 12, one for each apostle. Either way, there will be no leaving hungry.
Christmas itself is a day to spend with family and food. Shops will be closed to let workers enjoy the day as well. Another big meal is on the agenda: Christmas lunch. Do not let the name fool you; when Italians sit down for lunch on Christmas they may be there well through dinnertime.
Even when the day is over, the season is not. Venice plays host to one of the most spectacular New Year’s parties in the world. A masquerade at midnight marks the beginning of a New Year.
The end of the season comes with Epiphany on January 6th. On this day La Befana, the Christmas Witch, the Italian tradition that is similar to that of Santa Claus, visits families. La Befana is central to the Italian telling of the Christmas story: the three Wise Men stayed with her during their travels but she declined to join them when they left for Bethlehem. She later regretted her decision and now rides her broom giving out gifts to good children while looking for the newborn Jesus.
One last Italian tradition: anyone hoping for a visit of the Befana needs to leave something out for the witch. Milk and cookies? No. Try a glass of wine and an Italian sausage;-)