Visiting Italy during the Christmas season can be one of the most interesting ways to get a look inside Italian culture. Especially from a North American standpoint, where the ubiquitous Christmas tree is normally replaced by the presepio (nativity scene).
I spent the Christmas holiday in Rome two years ago and will do so again this year, so in the spirit of the holidays have composed a list of some of my favorite things to do during the Italian holiday season.
1. Christmas Markets
Christmas means shopping and towns all over Italy are filled with traditional markets selling candy and handicrafts. Most markets start popping up after December 8 (the holiday of the Immaculate Conception) and remain until January 6 (the Epiphany). One of my favorites is in Piazza Navona in Rome, with its carnival games, candy, and stalls selling nativity scenes and figurines of the Befana. For something a bit out of the way, stop by the Auditorium for their month long Christmas festival with games, concerts, ice skating, and puppet shows. Up north in Venice, the annual market in Campo Santa Stefano runs from November 29 to December 23 and features stands with handmade toys and crafts, as well as regional culinary specialties.
2. Christmas Food
To me winter always starts up when I see vendors on the streets roasting chestnuts. Just follow your nose and ask for a bag, which should cost 2 to 3 euro. Pandoro, typical of Verona and panettone, typical of Milan, are now found all over the peninsula and are often given to friends and co-workers. In Naples try strufoli, which are balls of fried dough drizzled with honey and sprinkles and then stacked into a little pyramid.
3. Christmas Presepe
Instead of looking for Christmas lights (though you will see those around as well), you can make a whole trip out of viewing the nativity scenes set up in various Italian cities. The nativity gets more popular the further south you go, where it seems like every store from butcher to baker has one set up. In Rome, stop by Santa Maria Maggiore to see one of the oldest nativities in the city, carved in marble. Of course the enormous nativity scene set up in St. Peter’s Square is also not to be missed. Also worth a visit is the Aracoeli, by Piazza Campidoglio, for their nativity and, from Christmas Eve onwards, a glimpse at the Santo Bambino. Roman children come to give thanks to this oil wood sculpture of the Christ Child. In Naples, you’ll want to be sure to visit via San Gregorio Armeno in Spaccanapoli. This famous street is filled with artisans creating nativity figurines. Everything from your traditional figures to Bart Simpson as a shepherd can be found here.
At Context Travel we offer specials walks in Rome and Naples designed around the food and nativity traditions in each city. Each make your holiday stay a bit more special, as you come away with a better understanding of what it means to celebrate Christmas in Italy. Both walks last three hours and are either 55 euro per person or 270 euro for groups booking privately.
Photo of the Colosseum at Christmas, Rome originally posted by Jakob Montrasio