While summer travel draws crowds to Italy with warm weather and outdoor activities, winter vacations can be magical with holiday celebrations, winter activities and fewer tourists. Christmas in Italy is just as big if not bigger than in the United States. Take a glimpse at some of the experiences and Holidays that Winter travel in Italy can bring:
Mercatino di Natale
The Christmas Markets in Italy are an attraction all on their own. With Christmas decorations and elaborate nativity scenes throughout cities, the colorful and often large markets add to the festiveness with many Babbo Natales (Father Christmases) walking around. Strolling through the markets while sipping Cioccolata Calda (Hot Chocolate) or Vin Brule (spiced wine), and watching vendors, dressed up as shepherds, sell local handcrafted gifts and toys can be a charming experience. Traditional Christmas confections such as the four varieties of fruit cake (panettone, pandoro, panforte and pandolce) can be found here or in nearby bakeries. While the Bressanone Market in the Alps and Piazza Navona in Rome are more famous, every major city will have them. In Salerno and Turin, art exhibit Luci d’Artista (Artist’s Lights) lights the city streets around Christmas markets with enchanting light displays. Perugia’s markets are surrounded by nativity scenes, exhibitions, lights and an ice ring. Typically opening in November, markets remain open through early January except for Christmas Day.
The Feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8th is a major holiday celebrated throughout Italy. In Rome, the Pope makes a pilgrimage to Piazza Mignanelli near the Spanish Steps and leaves a floral wreath, which firemen then place on the statue of the Madonna in the square. In Florence, the Christmas tree is lit and a special Fierucola dell’Immacolata (Immaculate Small Fair) is held. There are masses held and most shops are open as this also celebrates the first day of Christmas shopping.
If nature and the countryside beckon, there are many places and activities to enjoy, even in Winter. The Dolomite Mountains are a beautiful way to enjoy a skiing adventure, whether you’re a beginner, expert, or something in between. While in Florence, there are many places for ice skating or sledding. For a slower pace, visiting Abano Terme or nearby Montegrotto Terme whose healing thermal springs are a draw for visitors seeking relaxation. A quieter time in the country can be had at one of many castles and historical residences that host special Holiday retreats.
Most major cities have free music in the city squares, and many musical events and concerts take place in the same cathedrals where Christmas masses are held. Soul Christmas Gospel Festival holds a number of free concerts in the theaters and churches of Lake Trasimeno. In Venice, The Orchestra Musici Veneziani holds concerts on both New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day and Teatro La Fenice presents Capodanno 2018 throughout the last week of the year and into the New Year. In Milan, the Teatro alla Scala brings Bach’s Goldberg-Variation on New Year’s Day. In Rome Opera Omnia brings a New Year’s Baroque Concert with period instruments and you can see one more performance of The Nutcracker. Perugia hosts the Umbria Jazz Winter Festival to round out the year.
This special Holiday is celebrated throughout Italy. In Tuscany, Le Fiaccole di Natale (The Torches of Christmas Night) Festival in Abbadia San Salvatore is celebrated with huge bonfires. In Rome, at the Basilica of St Peter, the Vigil Mass of Christmas, conducted by the Pope, requires tickets in advance but you can catch it on jumbo screens in the nearby square. Christmas eve concerts are held throughout cities, followed a traditional Christmas Eve feasts, which feature many kinds of seafood. Reservations for dinner is highly recommended.
While most Italians spend this day with family, and many places are closed, there are still things to do. In Rome, the Pope gives his annual Urbi et Orbi (To The City and To The World) speech from the balcony of St Peters where many Italians come out with their families to listen. In most cities and towns there are Christmas Day masses held for all to enjoy.
Most of the towns and cities in Italy have major fireworks displays for il Capodanno or New Years. Huge televised outdoor shows are held in Rome, Milan, Bologna, Palermo, and Naples. While many events are open to the public, dinner reservations and concert tickets are highly recommended. From eating lentils for good luck, to drinking spumante or prosecco (Italian sparkling wines), expect most New Year’s festivities last until sunrise.
Jennie Olson Six
Cultural Italy Staff Writer