Italy is the next place we’re visiting for our Christmas Around the World blog series. To find out about its neighbour France, check out our earlier post.

The build-up

During the lead-up to Christmas Day, children go door-to-door around their towns and villages singing carols and even playing instruments for the residents. If this is a custom you enjoy in the UK, you might be interested to know carols actually originate from Italy.

The earliest written record of songs being specifically sung at Christmas dates back to the 4th century AD in Rome. It is a tradition that continues, with zampognari pipers playing the music on the Spanish Steps at the Christmas market in Piazza Navona. Even today, many believe it is important they are only sung in December up to Christmas Day but no later, in order to avoid bad luck.

Like in many other European countries observing Catholic traditions, it is custom in Italy to fast for 24 hours prior to Christmas Day. Today, many Italians forego meat on Christmas Eve rather than abstaining from food altogether. As a result, it’s not uncommon to sit down to a whole banquet of fish before attending Midnight Mass.

The Italian Santa

Just like in the UK and the US, Italy’s Christmas tradition is for children to hang their stockings and wait to see if they will be filled with sweets and treats (if they have been good) or coal (if they have been bad).

However, it is not historically Santa Claus or Father Christmas who is thought to deliver these gifts. La Befana is a good witch believed to leave presents for children on the eve of Epiphany (January 5th). Although she is a witch, La Befana was supposed to accompany the three Wise Men on her broomstick on their quest to see Christ, but she was delayed. Having missed the chance to follow the star, she spent the rest of her life leaving gifts for children in case they were Jesus.

As with some other European cultures, the baby Jesus is also believed to deliver presents during the festive period. Santa Lucia is another biblical figure thought to be responsible for handing out presents at this time of year – Saint Lucia’s Day is December 13th.

However, increasingly Babbo Natale – the Italian Santa Clause – is the most popular bringer of gifts over the festive period.

The feast

Italy is world-renowned for its delicious food, so it’s no wonder its Christmas dinners are spectacular. There is variation between the regions in what is served, but you can certainly expect a feast.

The first course is often soup filled with pasta like tortellini – quite a filling dish, not least before sitting down to a roast dinner! Other tasty starters include crostini and pate. This is followed by the main event.

Some form of poultry is traditionally served, but it differs in the way it is prepared and cooked. In some regions it is customary to boil the bird, and in others to roast it. Fish and roast lamb are also popular dishes at this time of year.

For dessert, Italians traditionally tuck into torrone, which is a type of nougat with nuts. Slices of panettone fruit bread, il panforte gingerbread, the ultra-buttery pandoro and fruit and marzipan biscuits and sweets are also served.

If you’re Italian, why not share some of your own Christmas customs below?

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