The Italian Christmas: A (survival) guide

The Italian Christmas, aka il Natale, is the archetype of a typical Italian celebration.

It involves two main things: family & loads of food.

Online there are many articles and resources that explain in details what Christmas in Italy is like, but in this article I’d rather explore the quirky side of the Italian Christmas, the one that happens in Italian houses with all the family around the table. The one that may seem a bit odd at the beginning, but it’s actually what makes Italians… Italian.

Because when we Italians celebrate, we celebrate BIG!!

But, first, let’s make its origin clear: Il Natale in Italy is commonly considered a Catholic celebration to honour Jesus’ Birth. That’s why, if you want to understand better Italian Christmas, we must start with these words:

Gesù bambino means Baby Jesus. And Italians knows exactly the time of his birth as well as the day. Can you believe it? 🙂 According to the Italian tradition, Jesus was born on the midnight of the 24th of December. Not earlier, nor later. That’s why If you enter a local church before the 25th of December and see a Nativity scene with little Jesus missing, don’t be surprised. He’s not born yet!

L’albero di Natale e il presepe: l’albero di Natale (Christmas tree) and il presepe (nativity scene or crib) are two main must-have items, if you want to properly celebrate Christmas in an Italian house. Although everyone knows about the Christmas tree, you may not know about the Presepe, which is especially widespread in the South of Italy, where it is considered a real art.

Artisans make wonderful and detailed Presepi, representing not only the Nativity, but also popular and traditional scenes of common peasants getting on with their lives, jobs and families while they wait for little Jesus to be born. A presepe is a sort of still, theatrical comedy that can magically transport you in a seventeenth century looking world, full of colours and emotions. Would you like to admire these little Christmas masterpieces? Naples is the best place to go, as there is a whole neighborhood dedicated to the artisans that make the Presepe. It’s called San Gregorio Armeno.

Zampognari. These are musicians that you may find at the street corner or at your house door that play traditional Christmas carols like this “Tu scendi dalle stelle” (“You come from the stars”, a traditional Christmas song having the rhythm of a lullaby dedicated to little Jesus)  a with their “zampogne” ( a sort of bagpipe). Just imagine an Italian version of a Scottish man with a bagpipe…that’s what a zampognaro looks like.

Along with these popular Italian Christmas symbols, there are also other things that make an Italian Christmas really Italian…

If you are lucky enough to celebrate Christmas in an Italian family, here are some of the things you should be aware of :

Il cibo. It means “food “and Italians eat loads of food over the Christmas holidays. In fact, Christmas is always the period where Italians expect two gain weight because they have to get through the followings meals:

Il cenone di Natale, il pranzo di Natale, il pranzo di Santo Stefano…
These are the names of the festive meals that Italians love and, at the same, hate as they always reveal to be a struggle to get through. Just the fact that they use the word “cenone” (big dinner) to describe, some of these meals, says a lot. In my house,when we have “il cenone di Natale” on Christma’s Eve, we start eating around 8pm and finish around midnight. On Christmas day, we have il pranzo di Natale and we start around 1pm and we finish around 4-5pm. Because there’a lots of food to eat! And some families also have a big lunch on 26th of December, when we celebrate Saint Stephen (it’s, in fact, called Santo Stefano!).

Oh, and later on, we also have the Cenone di Capodanno (on the 31st of December) and then the Pranzo di Capodanno (on the first day of the year), but that’s another story… After all, our ancestor were Romans, remember? (But we don’t throw up later!)

Tutta la famiglia (all the family). In addition to lots of food, be prepared to see also lots of people around the house. You may wonder how many people we are talking about. This may vary, but in my family we are at least 10 and I also know of one of my closest friends who goes crazy every year as she has to organise a Cenone for 50 people. I KID YOU NOT!

Cin cin: when the big meals are over, Italian always toast with a glass of “prosecco” or “champaigne” and say “cin cin” which means “cheers”. Here’s the trick for a perfect Italian toast: look in the other person’s eyes when you touch their glass. It shows the other person respect and care.

I regali: At the end of cenone of Natale, we normally open “i regali” (the gifts). Remember: Always open a gift in front of the people that have given it to you. Plus, you must remember to say ” grazie,mi piace molto!” (Thank you! I like it very much!). Because you’re not allowed NOT to like it!

Auguri: this word means “wishes” and Italians can also use it as a greeting over Christmas holidays. If you go to someone’s house and it’s Christmas, you’ll greet every person in the room by saying “Auguri ” and kissing them on both cheeks.

La tombola: this is the Italian version of Bingo, and Italians play it a lot over Christmas holidays (with ALL the family! 😉 ).How do they mark the numbers on the bingo card?  Italian love using beans! And, there are regional variation of the tombola where every number  (they are 90) identify a specific object, fact, event or superstition that reflects national as well as regional traditions and beliefs. For example, the meaning of the Neapolitan tombola’s numbers (from the Campania region ,where I come from) are listed in a “dictionary” called the “smorfia napoletana“.  The funny thing is that some Italians, when calling out Tombola numbers, love saying the thing associated to the number, rather than the number itself. This creates a game in the game, as people playing the tombola try to guess or remember the thing associated  with number.

La nonna. just one last warning: if grandma is offering you more food after a big meal, that is “an offer you can’t refuse”. You don’t want to get her upset. Eat it up!!

So, what do you think about Italian Christmas? How would you describe it in one word? Tell me your thoughts in the comments below!

And if you want to learn more Christmas related words in Italian, have a look at the flashcards I’ve recently added to my Italian Quizlet class. They include the words in this article and many more! You can access them for FREE by joining The Language Rose Learning Club! Sign up  right here!

Wishing you “Auguri di buon Natale”,


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