Christmas in Italy is a month long celebration

One day for Christmas in Italy just won’t do! Italians go all out with a full month of festivities. Christmas holiday celebrations in Italy kick off on December 8th, Immacolata (the Day of the Immaculate Conception) and go all the way into the new year ending on January 6th, Epifania (The Epiphany). Between big feasts, Christmas markets, and plenty of delicious goodies, food takes front and center stage during Christmas time in Italy. So you can expect that there will be a lot to try and taste. And to make your decision making a little easier, we’ve gathered some of our top Christmas Italian dishes and food traditions to help you infuse a little Italiano into your Christmas celebrations. 

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What to eat and drink at Christmas Markets in Italy 

Christmas markets are not just a Northern Italian affair.  From North to South you’ll find Christmas markets in almost every major Italian city. Planning a trip to Italy from December to the first week of January?  You’re in luck, because Christmas markets run from the first of advent all the way to Epifania.  So whether you’re in Italy for December or starting your New Year off right in Bella Italia, you’ll be able to check a visit to an Italian Christmas market off your bucket-list.

The Italian Christmas market is a foodie’s delight.  Market stalls will be packed full of candies, hand-made ornaments, artisanal crafts, traditional baked goods and even some local charcuterie! With a multitude of delicious goodies on display it’s hard to choose just one. 

Here are some of the local favorites that you simply can’t miss on your next trip to the Italian Christmas market.    

  • Castagne (roasted chestnuts)
  • Maron glacé (candied chestnuts)
  • Olive ascolane (stuffed fried olives), because no Christmas Market in Ascoli Piceno would be complete without trying these tasty morsels
  • Gianduia (chocolate hazelnut paste)
  • Vin brulé (mulled wine)  

 Won’t be in Italy on Christmas day?  No problem! Goodies like Maron glacé and Gianduia can be found online or at specialty shops around the world. They make excellent souvenirs and are the perfect stocking stuffers for the Italian food lovers in your life.  

Pro Tip:  When seeking out Gianduia choose those made in Italy.  Some of our favourite brands are Baratti Milano and Venchi which use high quality local Italian ingredients, such as Nocciola (Hazelnuts) from Piedmonte. Brands like Venchi also carry a variety of festive chocolates that are dairy and gluten-free.

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ChristmAs Eve Italian Food Traditions

Christmas in Italy has religious roots. In the past Catholic Italians used to fast on Christmas Eve and wait until the clock stroke midnight to celebrate the birth of baby Jesus. Nowadays Italians forgo the fasting, and head home after mass on La Vigilia (Christmas Eve) to enjoy a feast of lighter fair.  Dinner with the family on Christmas Eve usually consists of a feast of local seafood delicacies.  Traditionally, especially in places like Southern Italy, the ‘Feast of the Seven Fishes’ was celebrated and is now considered more of an Italian-American holiday.  However, many Southern Italians can still be found preparing this multi-course meal in coastal villages throughout Italy. Depending on what region you’re traveling to in Italy, the following is some of the seafood served on Christmas Eve:

  • Capitone (eel)
  • Polpo (octopus)
  • Vongole (mussels)
  • Baccalà (salted cod)
  • Calamari (squid)

Pro Tip:  Want to enjoy some seafood on Christmas Eve?  Why not try the favourite Italian recipe of Spaghetti con vongole!

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HOW TO Feast like an Italian on Christmas Day in italy

Italians pull out all the stops on Christmas Day with a midday meal that doesn’t stop until the sun goes down. Pranzo di Natale (Christmas lunch) is a multi-course lavish meal that is not to be missed on your next trip to Italy.  A typical Christmas pranzone (big lunch) in Italy starts with an array of appetizers, followed by multiple first dishes (baked pasta or risotto), a delicious second dish of roasted meat, and usually finished off with some traditional Italian Christmas desserts like panettone, panforte, or pandoro.

Each region in Italy has its own traditional dishes – in Ascoli look for appetizers of fritto misto and olive ascolane paired with the local Passerina sparkling wine.  For the first dishes baked pasta is a favourite of Italians.  Some traditional first dishes served in Italy on Christmas are: 

  • Timballo, best described as a white lasagna
  • Vincisgrassi, Le Marche’s version of lasagna
  • Cannelloni with bechamel sauce

For the second dishes you can expect to find roasted meat on the menu.  Some of the local favorites are:

  • Spezzatino di agnello (traditional lamb dish)
  • Stinco di vitello (roasted veal)
  • Filetto arrosto (roasted filet, can be pork or beef)

Good digestion is important to Italians enjoying a holiday meal.  Most Italians finish off their meal with a digestivo like grappa, which is usually served with some dried fruits and nuts, or an amaro (bitter liquor). If you’re not a fan of strong liquor, then vino cotto is a great option to end your Christmas feast.  Also vino cotto makes a great dessert when paired with decadent chocolate desserts, and even just a piece of quality dark chocolate. 

Pro Tip: Spending Christmas Day in Italy and would rather not be cooking on your Italian vacation? You can find set menus for “Pranzo di Natale” (Christmas Lunch) at restaurants across the country.  Prefer seafood for your Christmas Day lunch? Then search for restaurants along the coast where you’ll find an abundance of Christmas menus with local seafood dishes.

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Italians forgo the December 26th frenzy of the boxing day shopping spree and instead take advantage of the national holiday Santo Stefano to be with friends. The locals even have a saying in Italian, ‘Natale con i tuoi, Santo Stefano con chi vuoi‘, which roughly translated means that you spend Christmas with your family, and Santo Stefano with whoever you like. It’s a holiday to gather with friends to enjoy leftover Christmas dishes and sweets or head out for another feast at a local restaurant. 

Pro Tip: If you’re vacationing in Italy on Santo Stefano (December 26th) and want to dine out it is highly recommended that you make reservations in advance. Want more tips for your next Italian vacation? Click here to grab the free Italy Insider Cheatsheet.

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What you’ll be eating & drinking on New Year’s Eve in Italy

Capodanno, or New Year’s Eve, is another chance to celebrate during the Christmas holidays in Italy. Italians kick off New Year’s Eve celebrations by enjoying the Italian art of the aperitivo, a happy hour where you enjoy a drink with  appetizers and local charcuterie. The types of dishes and charcuterie served with your aperitivo will vary from region to region, but you can usually expect that prosciutto will make an appearance on the menu.  To welcome the New Year Italians celebrate with a “Cenone” – a big multi-course dinner (usually about 7 to 9 dishes).  Dishes served on New Year’s Eve in Italy are carefully selected for their symbolism and are thought to bring you luck.  The traditional dishes you can find served across the country are cotechino (a type of fresh pork sausage), uva (grapes), and lenticchie (lentils), which are shaped like little coins and served right after midnight. Post-cenone, most people head to the piazza to celebrate the countdown at midnight, ringing in the new year with friends, family and the entire town. 

Pro Tip: As with Santo Stefano it is also recommended that you book your New Year’s Even “Cenone” well in advance as it is not only popular with the locals ringing in the new year in Italy but also other travellers looking to enjoy the Italian festivities on their vacation.

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La Befana, the Italian Christmas Witch

As the holiday season draws to a close, La Befana, the woman with a broomstick who brings gifts, makes her appearance on Epiphany Eve, January 5. According to legend, she visits at night, bringing stockings full of sweets; traditionally oranges for good kids and coal for bad kids. Unlike Santa Claus, La Befana is treated to a bottle of red wine in lieu of milk and cookies. And before you thought all the feasting was over, another cenone is held on the Day of the Epiphany, January 6th, in some areas of Italy. 

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No holiday menu in Italy would be complete without some vino. Given the selection of wine on offer in Italy, it’s not hard to find the perfect pairing for every course. If you’re lucky enough to be in Italy over Christmas, your foodie senses will be delighted. Many families go out for Christmas as it’s seen as a holiday where you don’t have to cook, so if you’re travelling in Italy over the holidays simply make sure to reserve your spot well in advance (up to six weeks) so that you can enjoy the best menu at your choice of locations.

Pro Tip:  If you’re looking to dine out during your Christmas vacation in Italy, an easy way to find where to eat is to use Facebook. Simply search the events of the city you’ll be traveling to discover the holiday menus and restaurants that are taking reservations.  

Italians know how to celebrate la dolce vita, and they pull out all the stops over the holidays. Take advantage of the festive month long Christmas markets to pick up a gift for your favorite food and wine lover, or better yet, book them Italy’s Epicurean Journey, the trip of a lifetime, so that they can enjoy the magic of Italy themselves. 

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