Il Natale in Italia


To say 'Merry Christmas' in Italian, you say 'Buon Natale'.  It actually means 'Good Christmas.'
Very often, you will see and hear 'Buone Feste.'   This means 'Have good festivities.'

Father Christmas is Babbo Natale.   

In Italy, some children write their Christmas letters to Babbo Natale and others write to the Baby Jesus - Gesù Bambino.

If you are writing to Father Christmas, your letter should begin:  Caro Babbo Natale,.......
If you write to the Baby Jesus your letter should begin:  Caro Gesù Bambino,.......


This means that on Christmas Day, some Italian children find presents left by Babbo Natale and others find gifts that have been left by Gesù Bambino

It all depends upon who they wrote to!

When an Italian baby is born around Christmas-time, often the child will be named Natale, meaning Christmas, or a name linked to Christmas:  Natalia,  Natalina.

The word Natale is about 'being born.'  The English words 'nativity' and 'natal' come from Natale.  The Nativity - la Natività - refers to the birth of the Baby Jesus.

The largest Christmas tree in the world can be seen every year in the Italian town of Gubbio
It is the illuminated shape of a Christmas tree, arranged on a mountain slope.  It is 650 metres long and 350 metres wide.  Eight and a half kilometres of electric cable are used to light up the shape.  It can be seen from very far away.  A team of workers called 'Gli Alberaioli' set up the famous tree on the slopes of Mount Ignacio every Christmas.   

the Christmas tree = l'albero di Natale

The Christmas tree of Gubbio is lit up on 7 December, just in time for the important Italian celebration of
la Festa dell' Immacolata on 8 December.  This date is a celebration in honour of the the Virgin Mary. 

The 8 December is the date when most Italian families begin to put up their Christmas trees and decorations and is considered to be the start of the festivities.

The Christmas tree has become the symbol of the town of Gubbio. 

The 13 December is the feast day of Saint Lucy - Santa Lucia.  In many parts of northern Italy, she brings gifts to children, rather like Father Christmas.  Children write a letter beginning Cara Santa Lucia,....   They write about how well-behaved they have been and the gifts they would like to receive.   Before going to bed on the night of 12 / 13 December, they leave their letter together with refreshments for the saint and her donkey.   In the morning they will awaken to find goodies and gifts!

Saint Lucy travels in a carriage that is pulled by a donkey.  Often she is portayed wearing a crown of candles, illuminating her path in the dark night.  

The name Lucia comes from the Italian word luce, meaning 'light'.  Her feast day celebrations in Italian towns involve candles and lights, songs and Christmas markets.

Saint Francis of Assisi is the patron saint of Italy.   In Italian he is called San Francesco d' Assisi.  He was  the person who started the tradition of celebrating Christmas with a crib - un presepe

How did Saint Francis begin this tradition?

On the night of Christmas Eve, in 1223, in a forest by the town of Greccio, Francis and his companions prepared a stable with hay and other natural items such as moss, stones and wood.   He included real animals in the scene. 

Everyone acted as if they were in the Bethlehem stable with the new-born Baby Jesus. 

The event seemed so real and was so wonderful that it was repeated the following Christmas.  Eventually, it became the tradition to create a Nativity Scene every Christmas and in countries all over the world!


Throughout Italy, there are beautiful Christmas cribs on display.  They can be indoors or outdoors and the art of creating them is taken very seriously.

When creating il presepe it is the tradition is to go outside and gather moss - il muschio - for the base.  

Photo: an outdoors presepe, created in a garden in the city of Torino.

In many areas of Italy, the towns re-create live Nativity scenes in the style of Saint Francis.  These are called presepi viventi, meaning 'living cribs'.  The people dress up as if they were living in Bethlehem over 2000 years ago.  There are processions, people working with ancient tools and enacted scenes.

An interesting fact!  In 2018, the Vatican City displayed a Nativity scene created from sand!   It stood in Piazza San Pietro - Saint Peter's Square - and it was a true work of art.  This form of Christmas crib is called un presepe di sabbia and the sand used was transported from the Italian seaside town of Jesolo - an area in which it is traditional to create a sand Nativity.  Photo below from Vatican News. 

In 2019, there was un presepe made from wood - legno - in Piazza San Pietro.  There were 26 life-sized carved figures.  This wooden work of art was created in the town of Scurelle in the province of Trentino.   Photo below from Vatican News. 

Below is a video showing the people of Scurelle setting up the wooden presepe.   In the video, you can see the enormous amount of work and great care that has gone into creating it.   It was made from fallen trees after a storm.   Grandissimi complimenti!

THIS YEAR:  In 2020, there is un presepe di ceramica.  The St. Peter's Square Nativity will be 'borrowed' from an already-famous one that is known as il Presepe Monumentale.  It belongs to the town of Castelli, in the region of Abruzzo and it consists of 54 life-size ceramic statues.   The statues were created for a Christmas project during the years 1965 - 1975 by the students of an art college called l'Istituto Statale d'Arte 'F. A. Grue.'   Some of the statues were transported to the Vatican and inaugurated on 11 December where they will stay on display until mid-January.  The figures belonging to this presepe are made from la ceramica - ceramics / pottery.    They have a unique appearance!  Image below:

There is an Italian saying -
Un Natale senza presepe non è un Natale. 
Christmas without a crib is not Christmas.

Some more Christmas words -
la stella - the star
i Re Magi - the Three Kings
Betlemme - Bethlehem
Maria e Giuseppe  - Mary and Joseph
l'asino  the donkey
Gesù Bambino - Baby Jesus
  i pastori - the shepherds
l'angelo - the angel
l' albero di Natale - the Christmas tree
il regalo di Natale - the Christmas present
la calza di Natale - the Christmas stocking
il canto di Natale - the Christmas carol
la neve - the snow
il pupazzo di neve - the snowman
gli addobbi di Natale - the Christmas decorations

The red house-plant known as poinsettia is very popular in Italian buildings and houses at Christmas.  Italians call it la stella di Natale, meaning 'the Christmas star.'

On the 16 December begins a special period of nine days called la Novena.  The Italian word nove means 'nine.'  On each day, special prayers are said and Christmas carols are sung.  The nine-day period ends on Christmas Day.

On Christmas Eve - la Vigilia di Natale - Italians eat a special late evening meal called 'Il cenone della Vigilia di Natale' and it is a big family get-together.  The tradition is that the Christmas Eve meal should include fish, but no meat.  

Many families attend Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.  Midnight mass on Christmas Eve is called la Messa del Gallo.   Literally, this means the 'Mass of the Cockerel / Rooster'.  

Christmas Day is il Giorno di Natale.  On Christmas Day, children open the presents received from either the Baby Jesus - Gesù Bambino, or Father Christmas - Babbo Natale.

At midday on Christmas Day, the Pope - Il Papa - speaks to thousands of people who gather in St. Peter's Square in the Vatican City.  The speech is known as il messaggio.   At home, people watch the event on the television.  It is very important.

Buon appetito!
Buon Natale!

Some of the most popular foods to eat in Italy on Christmas Day are:   
i ravioli  
king prawns - i gamberoni   
lobster - l'aragosta
   lamb - l'agnello 
suckling pig - il maiale da latte
    turkey - il tacchino
Oranges and tangerines - arance e mandarini
Oranges grow in Italy and their harvest is at the end of the year - just in time for Christmas.



Artichokes (i carciofi) and fennel (il finocchio) are popular vegetables as they are in season at this time of year.  Nuts (le noci), nougat (il torrone) and chocolate (il cioccolato) are also popular at Christmas time.

Lots of Italian sparkling wine is drunk.  This wine is called lo spumante.   Il prosecco is another Italian sparkling wine that is popular on special occasions.

A special bread-cake called il panettone is eaten and given as a gift when visiting friends and relatives throughout the Christmas period.  It is filled with dried fruit and candied peel. 

A finer and softer version of il panettone is called il pandoro - this means 'golden bread.'  It contains no fruit and is traditionally dusted with icing sugar.

Boxing Day is known as la festa di Santo Stefano or just Santo Stefano for short.  This is Saint Stephen's Day.  It will be your name day - onomastico - if you are called Stefano or Stefania

In Italian, New Year is called Capodanno.  The last day of the year is also known as San Silvestro (Saint Sylvester's day.)   In Italy, you do not need a clock to tell you when it is midnight because there is always an enormous racket made by beeping car-horns and spumante corks popping.  

To say 'Happy New Year' you can either say Felice Anno Nuovo (Happy New Year) or Buon Anno (Good Year).

There is an Italian rhyme about Christmas and New Year: -  
Natale con i tuoi, 
Capodanno con chi vuoi.

Christmas with your family, 
New Year with whoever you like.


On the first day of the new year, Italians believe that to wear the colour red (rosso) and to eat lentils (le lenticchie) will bring good luck.  Some people carry a handful of raw lentils in a tissue in their handbag or pocket.

The 6 January is an important date in Italy.  It celebrates the end of the journey of the Three Kings - i Re Magi -  when they found the Baby Jesus in the stable of Bethlehem.  This celebration is called l' Epifania and Italian children love it because the Christmas witch, called La Befana, arrives during the night, flying on her broomstick. 

Italian children hang up a stocking - una calza - before they go to bed on the night of 5 January.  La Befana enters the houses whilst everyone is asleep and fills the stockings with gifts.

But beware!  Children are warned that La Befana fills naughty children's stockings with - il carbone - coal!   Usually, children will find some black sweets in their stocking:  sweets that look like coal!

In the photo you can see sweet 'coal' that is put in Italian children's stockings on 6 January.

It is called il carbone dolce.

It is believed that the tradition of La Befana exists because of a story involving an old woman:

When the Three Kings - i Re Magi - set out on their long and difficult journey, following the star of Bethlehem, there was an old woman who wanted to accompany them.  However,  she changed her mind and stayed at home instead.   Eventually, the woman regretted her decision because the Three Kings found the Baby Jesus and gave Him their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  These gifts are called oro, incenso e mirra in Italian. 

In order to apologise for her decision to stay at home, every year she brings gifts to children on the 6 January.   This replicates when the Kings visited the Baby Jesus and gave Him their gifts.

The name of the Three Kings - i Re Magi - is a way to say 'the magic kings'.  They used their magic powers of observing the stars and planets to look for special meanings and warnings.

 It was the star of Bethlehem - la stella di Betlemme - that indicated to them the birth and location of a new King for whom they set out on their journey. 

In January, in seaside areas, especially in the south of Italy, it is the tradition to collect sea-urchins to eat.  This creature is called un riccio di mare  meaning 'a sea hedgehog.'

Buon Natale e Felice Anno Nuovo!

Celebration of Santa Lucia

Christmas Zone

Italian Zone

Site updated:  3 February 2021   
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