An edited version of this article appeared in the November 2016 issue of Dream of Italy. Updated 2018.
The holiday season is a magical time of year in Italy and a great time to experience Italian traditions new and old. Over the years at Dream of Italy, we’ve written about various ways to celebrate Christmas, New Year’s and the Epiphany throughout Italy. To come up with some new and different ideas, we asked some of our favorite Italophiles for their favorite holiday experiences in Italy:
Florence: Arrival of the Magi
Celebrate the Epiphany in Florence by watching the arrival of the Magi (Wise Men) in period costumes with their cavalcade of more than 500 participants – also in costume as knights, drummers, and flag bearers – in Piazza Duomo. It is a very special performance cherished by locals and lucky travelers, and is a perfect glimpse into the local way of enjoying the holidays. The magi come bearing the traditional gifts, of course, and present them to a living nativity scene with farm animals and people dressed as Jesus, Mary and Joseph. The parade starts at 2:15 p.m. on January 6 in Palazzo Pitti and makes its way across the Ponte Vecchio and to Piazza della Signoria before ending in Piazza Duomo.
Recommended by Kenny Dunn, Eating Italy Food Tours,
As the cold air fills with festive music and the smell of roasted chestnuts and spiced wine, Befanas of all ages descend upon the cobblestone streets to celebrate in Urbania, the town in Le Marche that La Befana is believed to hail from. In Italian folklore, La Befana is an old woman who delivers gifts to children throughout Italy on the Eve of Epiphany. In addition to delivering gifts, she will sweep the floor before she leaves! It is customary to set out a glass of wine and snacks to thank her for cleaning the house. Festa Nazionale della Befana runs January 2 to 6. For more information, visit www.urbania-casteldurante.com.
Recommended by Ashley Bartner, La Tavola Marche, www.latavolamarche.com
Rome: Christmas Concert in Capuchin Crypts
In an evening that combines Christmas atmosphere, Baroque Italian music, and history, music lovers can enjoy a classical Christmas concert in the Church of Santa Maria Immacolata, followed by a guided tour (in English) of the Capuchin crypts. The crypts, a grotesque exhibit, contain the bones of 3,700 Capuchin friars whose remains were transported to the crypt when the monks arrived at the church in 1631. The concerts are performed by the Schola Romana Ensemble, which specializes in Roman music from the Baroque period. Music from composers Giacomo Carissimi, Agostino Agazzari, Giuseppe Pitoni and Carlo Graziani will be featured. For more information, visit www.classictic.com
Recommended by Lorna Davidson, The Roman Guy, www.theromanguy.com
Rome: Santa Maria Maggiore
Visiting the Papal Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore and seeing its presepe takes you back to the early celebrations of Christmas in Italy. The very first Christmas Mass was held here, and in the church’s museum is the first presepe. Carved by Arnolfo di Cambio in the late 13th century, the large marble figures were commissioned for the first Rome Jubilee, held in 1300. In the crypt is a relic believed to be a piece of the original manger, kept in the Reliquary of the Holy Crib. At midnight on December 24, the bells are rung to announce the start of Christmas. For more information, visit www.vatican.va
Recommended by Martha Bakerijian, Martha’s Italy, www.marthasitaly.com
Rome: Buy Food Gifts
What better gift to give during the holiday season, especially in Italy, the food! A great place to find food gifts during the holiday season in Rome is the fine foods emporium, Franchi Gastronomia, at Via Cola di Rienzo, 200, not far from the Vatican. Fine cheeses, cured meats like prosciutto and salami, jellies, wines, and fresh truffles are among the delicious offerings to sample and take home. While you’re shopping for gifts, treat yourself to the calzones, fried rice balls (suppli), stuffed zucchini flowers, and other ready-made dishes for a quick lunch. Closed Sunday.
Recommended by Jason Spiehler, Walks of Italy, www.walks.org
Tuscany: Panforte Throwing
For an unusual tradition, experience panforte throwing in the Tuscan town of Pienza. Italians are used to gorging on this delicious Italian fruitcake over the Christmas holidays, but throwing it full pelt is unique to Pienza. The Torneo Gioco del Panforte is held from December 26 to 30 in Pienza’s town hall and requires competitors to throw an entire panforte over a long table, attempting to slide it to the end (or as close as possible to it). The most points are awarded to those who can make their panforte hang over the edge. No points are awarded to those who make the panforte fall off! In 2016, more than 30 teams will take part, both locals and tourists alike. For more information, visit www.comune.pienza.siena.it
Daisy Cropper, Insight Guides, www.insightguides.com
Umbria: Christmas Onion Festival
Cannara, a lovely little town 20 minutes from Assisi, is known for its onions (there’s a huge festival in September) and so the town welcomes the Christmas season with a four-day mini-onion festival. Taverns are set up to enjoy traditional onion-based specialties with locals and there’s a small Christmas market. Residents of Cannara also take pride in showing off their presepi as well as indulging in hot roasted chestnuts and vin brulè. In 2016, the Festa della Cipolla Winter takes place December 8 to 11. For more information, visit www.festadellacipolla.com
Recommended by Jennifer McIlvaine, Life Italian Style Tours, www.lifeitalianstyle.com
Umbria: World’s Largest Christmas Tree
The world’s largest Christmas tree is not an actual tree, but a lighting installation that is put up annually on Mount Ingino outside the city of Gubbio. The tree is very popular among Umbrians and has 3,000 multicolored lights and 8.5 kilometers (five miles) of electrical cable, placed all the way up the slopes of Monte Ingino, which towers above the city. The illumination can be seen up to 50 kilometers (30 miles) away. The tree lights are switched on every year on December 7, just before the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, until the first week in January. The best photo spots are along Via Beniamino Ubaldi. Also, if you are in Umbria for the holidays, be sure to order cappelletti (small tortellini) in a capon (rooster) broth, a real local delicacy.
Recommended by Letizia Mattiaci, Alla Madonna del Piatto Cooking School, www.incampagna.com