Christmastime Up North in Italy: Some Local Traditions

Celebrating Christmas in Italy, Emma Cuthbertson, originally from Cornwall in the UK, is a Salesforce Marketing Cloud Consultant living in Northern Italy with her husband and two children.


A Facebook Memory post popped up the other morning on my screen. It was dated 17th of November 2011. I had posted back then: “I was out walking with my seven-week-old son today and an Italian Signora stopped me in the street and cooed “Your son looks exactly like Baby Jesus!”  This was amusing on many levels, but mostly because there are still 6 weeks until Xmas!”

Living in a different country around Christmas can stir up many emotions, even more so once you have your own children. It is that time of year to be with family and friends. The “Coming Home For Christmas” media campaigns of the likes of John Lewis and Coca Cola, along with Love Actually on Netflix, also definitely heighten that sense of nostalgia. I think that, after this 2020 year of Covid, that sentiment will only be more poignantly felt this Christmas.

As a Mum bringing up my family here, I really wanted my children to feel part of the Christmases that I had experienced as a child. The result is a now a hybrid mix of some of my Anglo Christmas traditions, and some new ones we have adopted or created as a family whilst living here in Northern Italy. I am sure that this is the same for many of you raising your families abroad.

Christmastime Up North in Italy

a snack left out for santa lucia

On the night before December 13th excitement here in Lombardy is off the radar for most children. The eager anticipation is for the arrival of Santa Lucia who brings gifts for children…. provided they have been well behaved all year. If not the case… then it is a lump of coal instead!  Santa Lucia, a symbolic figure here in Lombardy, other parts of Northern Italy and in Sicily, is the Patron Saint of the Blind. Lucia means literally “the bearer of light.”

In our area, Santa Lucia is the traditional gift bearer for kids rather than Father Christmas. Children usually receive their main Christmas presents from Santa Lucia and maybe a small gift on Christmas Day. Before going to bed children will prepare a snack for La Santa and a bucket of water and some hay or polenta flour for her donkey. Note: Do not use baking flour as I did as an inexperienced newbie a few years ago; it creates a big mess on the floor. The donkey footprints are especially a nightmare…..

The 13th of December is usually a day off school here for elementary-age children. I basically treat it as another Christmas Day for us now. Or a Christmas Day rehearsal.

In the nearby town of Bergamo there is the Santa Lucia Church where the tradition remains that the children deliver their Santa Lucia letter to the tomb there. Most of the local town halls organise for a Santa Lucia to arrive with her donkey in the local piazza on the evening of December 12th, ringing her bell and with sweets and small gifts for the children. In the Trento area where Father Christmas is celebrated more than Santa Lucia, there is another lovely tradition whereby the children attach their Father Xmas letters to balloons and let them go in the local squares on organised events closer to Xmas.

cappelletti in broth

There is still a simplicity and authenticity about Christmastime in Italy which I do enjoy, even though inevitably it is becoming more commercialised and is starting earlier each year. Christmas Eve midnight mass is important here. Families come together for a traditional family meal, il Cenone della Vigilia di Natale, on the 24th in the evening before Mass. The main dish traditionally is fish, perhaps moreover amongst families from the South. Christmas Day in Italy is, inevitably, all about the food! The menu line-up will typically offer a minimum of four courses, but it is not unusual to serve up to seven or eight. The main dish will be usually meat or fowl based. There is no turkey equivalent, that almost everyone eats in Italy at Christmas, as in the UK at Christmas or the USA at Thanksgiving.

The main Christmas Day course will pretty much depend on each family and their own traditions.  Il primo however may typically be cappelletti in brodo di cappone which is a hearty, winter warmer of chicken broth with handmade pasta. My sister-in-law often sources the cappelletti from Bologna and they are truly the business!  In our area, here near Brescia, it is typical to have brodo con ravioli or casconcelli bresciani as an alternative.  Panettone and Pandoro are still the King and Queen of Italian Christmas dolci. Panettone originates from Milan and Pandoro from nearby Verona.

Each region has its own homegrown Christmas delicacies. Zelten, from Trentino, is the traditional Christmas cake there, made from pine nuts, almonds, hazelnuts, raisin, candied orange and lemon and a hefty dose of grappa, or rum or brandy!  La Gubana is the typical Christmas cake in Friuli Venezia Giulia made again from sweet, leavened dough with a filling of dried fruits and nuts. My family in Gorizia make this one so I can personally say it is really goooooood!

Christmas in Northern Italy

tree alignment over baileys

The traditional Christmas markets here in the North of Italy usually set up in the centri storici and piazze from the end of November/beginning of December. Unfortunately, this year they will not be taking place because of the Covid restrictions. The markets sell local food produce and Christmas handcrafts, as well as grappe and vin brulé to keep the cold at bay. The local Parampampoli in Trentino is a must Christmas flambé liquor to experience: one to put hairs on your chest!

Live nativity scenes, presepi viventi, are also often found all over Italy at Christmas, the more adventurous ones with real animals also actually in the stable! One of the most famous ones here in the North is in Tesero in Val di Fiemme. In fact, most families will have a small nativity scene to decorate their homes at Christmas, instead of, or as well as, a Christmas tree.

2020 has been a strange and sad year locally and globally. For that reason, Christmas will undoubtedly be different for all of us this December. Perhaps quieter and more reflective, but probably a time when our traditions, new and old, are even more meaningful and special to us and our families.

Season Greetings to you and your family. I hope it is starting to feel a lot like Christmas for you, wherever you may be celebrating this year.


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