Known as “The Rooftop of Italy,” the Trentino-Alto Adige region is located high in the Alps and Dolomites of the northeast corner of the Italian peninsula. During the Christmas season, wealthy Europeans flock to the Alto Adige area to enjoy the ski slopes that often tower above 10,000 feet. However, the majority of this region’s residents are devout Catholics and look upon Natale as a deeply holy season during which it is appropriate to give thanks and celebrate the Lord’s blessings.
Every year, from November 25 to January 6, towns in Trentino Alto Adige usher in the Christmas season with holiday markets that reproduce a fairytale atmosphere. These markets are among the most popular in Italy, where guests can purchase artisan products and local food and wines. Pine and fir trees, majestic symbols of Christmas, are decorated with apples, nuts, gingerbread cookies and wooden decorations. All the markets feature their own unique characteristics that vary according to local tradition.
In the beautiful medieval town of Bressanone, Christmas lights decorate the Town Hall and Square, framed by the charming scenography of the Cathedral and the Church of San Michele. The event is enhanced by the Christmas Nativity Museum inside the Palazzo Vescovile, a tradition carried on for over 800 years.
Another star is the town of Merano. During the holiday season, the historic center dresses up its streets and alleys with fantastic Christmas decorations. Traditions live in various events, concerts and parades such as that for San Nicolò, patron saint of the city of Merano, who walks through the town offering sweets to children. Bolzano is the largest city in Trentino Alto Adige. The city center resembles a medieval village that takes visitors through the magical traditions of Advent in the Alpines. Piazza Walther displays the typical wooden houses of the Christmas Market and the city is dressed up with hundreds of lights illuminating the streets.
Located just below Valle d’Aosta, the region of Piedmont also boasts a beautiful terrain of mountains and valleys. Many residents of the region’s tiny villages celebrate the season by participating in living nativity scenes on Christmas Eve. These are followed by gatherings in which the “actors” join the audience to share holiday treats such as hot vin brûlé, a spicy wine-chocolate drink, roasted chestnuts and grappa.
The town of Alagna hosts the most distinctive presepio display in the region, featuring ice-carved statues of the Madonna, San Giuseppe, the Magi and angeli, as well as the other Biblical figures and animals who witnessed the birth of the Bambino Divino. The demonstration is attended by Piemontese from throughout the region, as well as revelers from other areas of Italy.
Il Magico Paese di Natale in Govone is a perfect place for children to enjoy the lessons of Christmas with pop-up theater performances and children’s workshops. Santa himself is ensconced for the season in the castle of the nearby town of Monticello d’Alba.
Also bear in mind that the Piedmont is a culinary paradise. Foods range from street market staples such as roasted castagne, delicious hazelnut cakes and the silkiest hot chocolate imaginable, to extraordinary gourmet fare at in the region’s many superb restaurants.
In northern central Italy we visit the region of Lombardy, home to Milan. The city is perhaps the most modern of Italy’s largest metropolises and it’s also an international capital of fashion and design – so it’s no surprise that the Milanese celebrate the Christmas season in style.
Every year, thousands of locals and tourists visit the famed Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II to view the incredible Swarovski Crystal Christmas Tree. The tree, which has become a new tradition in Italy, is reminiscent of New York City’s Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree. Towering above the beautiful Galleria as a symbol of the festive season, the pine tree is decked out in beautifully handcrafted crystal ornaments and strung with over 10,000 lights. Visitors to the tree are invited to purchase limited edition ornaments, the proceeds of which benefit a different charity every year.
Of course, Milan residents never forget the traditional principles of Christmas. In observance of the Epiphany, the city hosts the Corteo dei Re Magi, “Parade of the Three Kings.” Participants follow a route from the Duomo to the Church of Sant’Eustorgio, where presents are distributed among the poor and a Mass is celebrated.
Friuli-Venezia Giulia is one of the youngest of Italy’s regions, established after World War II and located to the far northeast of the boot. The economy of Friuli-Venezia Giulia relies on industries that derive from natural materials such as agriculture, wooden furniture making and the raising of cattle for beef production.
Santa Claus bringing gifts to the children of Friuli Venezia Giulia is a recent innovation. Traditionally, San Nicolò brings gifts in Friuli. He has a long white beard, wears red and white clothes and carries a shepherd’s staff. According to the legend, San Nicolò was a Bishop who gave apples to three poor children that in the night transformed into gold. Now he brings to children little presents, sweets or fruits if they have been good during the year.
Before San Nicolò arrives, children who have misbehaved may be visited by the ‘Krampus,’ who are awful half men-half goat monsters. You can hear them coming because of their ringing bells. According to legend, if the Krampus see the children run away from the bells, they will chase them down and hit them with brooms. Thankfully, they usually disappear as soon as San Nicolò arrives. Throughout Friuli Venezia Giulia, towns hold Krampus Runs, where young men dressed up as the monsters run through town carrying bells and brooms, but the children who have been good have nothing to fear.
Italy’s northwestern-most region is famous for its pristine ski slopes and chilly climate. Valle d’Aosta is bordered by the Alps on each side, which trap the cold mountain air in the unspoiled valley. The frostiness of this Italian region inspires a unique tradition enjoyed throughout the Christmas season. Local residents celebrate by sharing the Coppa dell’Amicizia, “Cup of Friendship.” This holiday drink is made from a combination of espresso, grappa, orange or lemon, sugar and a regional liquor called genepy. The warm concoction is served in a grolla, an artisan-made carved wooden bowl featuring numerous spouts and is passed around among friends who may sip the drink and enjoy its warmth.
Valle d’Aosta is also home to a famous market called Verrès, which is held annually on the Sunday before Christmas. In the center of Aosta, the capital of the region, scores of local merchants and artisans gather to sell their wares.