Natale viene una sola volta un’anno – this time-honored proverb, translated as “Christmas comes but once a year,” originated in Italy. The now often used phrase illustrates the Italian tradition of celebrating the Christmas season with more fanfare and festivity than anywhere else in the world – in fact, Italy commemorates Natale with various festivals, religious ceremonies and customs for over six weeks, from the beginning of December to the middle of January.
Italy’s northwestern-most region of Valle d’Aosta is famous for its pristine ski slopes and chilly climate. Valle d’Aosta is bordered by the Alps on each side. 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.
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. 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.
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. The village of Tesero is famous for its splendid revival of the ancient Cantori della Stella – Star Singers, held from Christmas Day through the Epiphany. Choirs travel from house to house singing Christmas hymns and songs, collecting gifts and donations to be gifted to the church. It is from this Italian tradition that Christmas Caroling was derived.
The Veneto region, although best known as the home of Venice, includes many mountains. For centuries, Venetians have marked the start of the Holy Christmas Season with Fiaccolate degli Sciatori – Skiers Torchlight Parades. Hundreds of skiers bearing green, white and red torches have a procession down the slopes to create an impressive holiday blaze that lights up the midnight sky.
One of the unusual traditions in the region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia follows the traditional festivities of Christmas Day. Locals meet at the summits of hills to burn their unneeded household items in huge bonfires called pignarul. The burning of old possessions is symbolic of purifying the earth and its people so that the coming year may bring both bounty and good luck.
In Genoa, a must-see attraction is the traditional lighting of the Christmas tree donated by the Fiemme Valley in the Trentino Alto Adige region. Also popular is the Confuego, an old tradition consisting in setting alight a large bay tree log, a gift to the Doge of the city by the People’s Representative.
In the Tuscan city of Lucca, the Christmas period is accompanied by numerous traditional events. A favorite for many centuries has been the burning of bonfires, originally meant to assist the rising sun. Processions of people offer their well-wishing songs and go from house to house. In exchange they receive food and drink.
One of Italy’s most secular seasonal festivities is the Umbria Winter Jazz Festival, consisting of five days of music, culture and events linked to New Year’s Eve. During the five day celebration, the city of Orvieto offers music all hours of the day.
In the Marche region they have a rather unusual way of preparing their traditional bird, the capon. It is boiled in water on Christmas Eve and when fully cooked, it is left in the pot overnight. On Christmas morning, when all the fat on the broth’s surface is removed and set aside, it is considered “blessed.” The cenone will feature a huge variety of regional foods, with Pizza de Natà being a favorite. It is made with nuts, dried fruit, chocolate, grated lemon and orange peel.
In Abruzzo, a favorite holiday food is Parrozzo. Originally derived from the simple bread made by Abruzzese shepherds, it is embellished with locally-grown ground sweet almonds, topped with a coating of rich chocolate and has become one of the iconic sweets of the region.
Christmas Eve in Molise has families gathered around the ceppo or Yule log. The head of the household blesses the log and kisses it before putting it in the fireplace, which burns throughout the night to keep Baby Jesus warm. A favorite dessert tradition is pizzelle, one of the world’s oldest cookies, developed from the ancient Roman crustulum.
The Sardinian people love their holiday sweets. One of the favorite Christmas desserts is Pane Di Sapa – garnished with nuts, sapa honey, dry grapes and semola. Another popular dessert during Christmas is pistocus de coccuru made with native ingredients like hazelnuts, egg yolks, sugar and freshly squeezed lemon juice.
Christmas Eve in Pizzo Calabro, a Calabrese seaport town on a steep cliff overlooking the Gulf of Sant’Eufemia, begins with a stroll through the center of the town. Stores are filled with holiday shoppers and you can hear the sound of the zampognari, with their bright red jackets and broad-brimmed hats. You can be assured that dinner that evening will include bottarga, (tuna roe preserved in salt), a specialty of this historical town, served with homemade preserved olives and stuffed mussels.
Christmastime is the ideal moment to visit the Sassi of Matera in Basilicata. The beautiful and charming city is decorated by colorful lights, spicy smells and Christmas songs, which fill the hearts and instill the joy and magic typical of this time of year. The city also is host to the largest nativity scene in the world, with more than 1,000 costumed actors and seven scenes of the Nativity.
In Puglia, the town of Tricase, situated almost at the Italian heel, is known as the Bethlehem of Italy. It is also host to a beautiful Presepio Vivente (live Nativity scene) on the hillside of Monte Orco. Through this experience, visitors and townsfolk are transported back in time to recreate the real spirit of Christmas.
Gastronomically speaking, Sicily is at its best during the Christmas season. Banquets of legendary dimensions are prepared where endless varieties of cheese, meat, pasta, seafood and desserts are served. Cassata, Cannoli and Torta Setteveli are the most popular desserts and every Sicilian with a sweet tooth finds themselves in heaven throughout the holidays.