Five “W” Words for Christmas in Italy

Christmas, Italy, magic, food, gifts
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“Natale con i tuoi, Pasqua con chi vuoi”. – Italian saying.

Here again, we’ve almost made it through this year as well! Congrats! And Merry Christmas!!!

All over the Christian world Christmas is considered the most important and most lovely holiday of the year. And Italy, of course, is of no exception! From Christmas trees of whatever dimension to Christmas vibrant lights and decorations, from Christmas novelty songs to glossy paper and colourful ribbons on gift packages… Everything is here to convey the warm and romantic atmosphere of the period! Whether you’re looking to spot Babbo Natale (Santa Claus) or even the Pope himself, Italy is a Christmas lover’s playland. And I just can’t help myself not to spread a word about Christmas, or Natale, in Italy!

Why Christmas?

Today only a few people actually remember that Christmas has pagan origins. So, in Roman times, the 25th of December was the day chosen to worship the God Mithras. Mithras was associated to the sun and hence to the light path in the sky. After the spread of Christianity, by the IV-V century AD,  the cult for Jesus Christ took over that of Mithras. In fact, Jesus Christ still today represents spiritual light, love and hope to Christians all over the world!

In nowadays hectic and unpredictable times, Christmas (Jesus Christ Birthday) is commonly accepted and celebrated by both: those Christians who have faith, and those who’ve lost it. By one or other reason. Cute and curious fact at the same time, isn’t it?

Well, my guess is, people do need to keep up such strong spiritual and time-honoured tradition with its nice and warm atmosphere. Why do they? In order to maintain their mental health and inner balance. As well as, to take a breath, relax and enjoy. It’s the hectic world, after all! People do need to believe in something, even when they don’t. Hence for most of us, Christmas remains the most exciting and most favourite holiday of the year!

When do Italian people celebrate Natale?

Looking back in the time space… In some countries, such holidays as Thanksgiving, or even Halloween, sign the start of the Christmas period. In Italy, however, Natale officially kicks off on the 8th of December, with the Day of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. (And no: no one is saying Mary was pregnant for only three weeks!). Moreover, this is the day when Natale decorations go up: on the streets and piazzas, inside Italian homes and Churches, offices and supermarkets etc. Italians usually do both: setting up the Christmas tree and presepe (Crib). The 8th of December thus is a national holiday so adored by all Italian kids. By the way, it is also the day when bustling mercatini di Natale (“Christmas markets“) start. So adults adore it as well!

Talking about Natale, Italians usually refer to the whole period of time running from the 24th of December to the 6th of January. Natale period includes Christmas Eve (24/12), Christmas Day (25/12), Saint Stephen’s Day (26/12), New Year’s Eve (evening and night between the 31/12 and the 1/01) and Epiphany (6/01).

Given that, with the exception of 31/12, all above mentioned days are religious and state-sanctioned “days off”… Hence for most of Italians Natale season is also a period of winter holidays, both form work and studies. Often though, for most employees it means the last week of December or the first one of January. Better than nothing, in any case!

Where do Italians prefer to celebrate Christmas?

Talking of “where”, one should keep in mind the Italian national saying: Natale con i tuoi, Pasqua con chi vuoi“. Which literally means: “Christmas with your family, Easter with whomever you want”. The answer is clear, isn’t it?

According to Nielsen study commissioned by Lidl, 67% of Italian respondents prefer to celebrate Natale “at home”. “At home here gets quite an extended meaning… It can be a proper home or rather a home of relatives or close friends. Let’s get a closer look! 

Two Italians out of three (about 60%), celebrate Christmas at home of their relatives.  This tradition often includes all days of Christmas holidays. So, family gathering often starts in the evening of Christmas Eve and lasts right to the Sain Stephen’s Day. Families get together and eat leftover Christmas dishes and sweets.

A part from delicious food, numerous gifts and celebration itself, the greatest gift on Christmas holidays worhtly is love and care among all family members… Sometimes this means to take a trip of 600 km or more. In other cases, to visit more “homes” within few days as well as invite people to your own place. But that what Natale stands for!

Two thirds of Italians celebrate Christmas with their life partner and/or children (“or” stands for separated couples which day after day increase in number). On the other hand, 66% of Italians cannot immagine the Christmas celebrations without their parents. (I can immagine “why”, with all due respect, since lots of Italians actually live with their parents till their mid-thirties). The further 37% of Italian people also include their parents-in-laws in Christmas celebrations. Moreover, 63% of Italians invite other relatives and friend to their place on this occasion.

Appears like 60% of Italians like to celebrate Christmas surrounded by so many people! There’s no doubt, Natale is not only the most important, but also the most favourite Italian celebration!

Where do the rest of 37% of Italain people go?

Seems like the resting 37% of Italians are likely to take advantage of Christmas holidays to travel. Some prefer to travel abroad. In fact, such destinations as New York, Paris or Canarian islands are among the most popular ones. The difference in choice is radical, as well as the in-depth reasons that lead to a choise. We’ll examine them later. As for now, let’s just say that normally, such choice is made months before Christmas season begins!

Others, instead, opt to enjoy some of winter resorts that Italy generously offers. In fact, if you try to book some fancy place on last minute, you’ll probably find out that the hotel is out of rooms. That’s the thing about Italy, you have to book in advance! Always! But especially on holidays.

By the way, Natale is also a fanatstic period for tourist from all over the world to visit Italy. First, you’ll avoid the high summer season notable for tourist crowds. Second, you’ll get to see the country decked out in all its holiday finery!

What do Italians associate Christmas with?

About 82% of Italians feel really happy about the way they live Christmas, surrounded by festive decorations and their families. Christmas Eve dinner and Christmas lunch are the highlights of the year. In fact, the 96% of Italians associate Christmas with extremely good food. Further 95% of Italian people associate Christmas with a unique opportunity to get together with people who love them and care.  No wonder, other 93% of Italians associate Christmas with the gifts, both to give and to recieve! And finally, only 70% of Italian people believe that Christmas holidays is a time to relax or reflect.

A word about Natale food…

Personally 24th of December is my favourite dinner of the whole year! The thing is, I adore fish… And this is the time when only fish dishes are eaten! De gustus non desputandum, but is there any food more delicious than fish or its “sea/ocean relatives”? Not for me. One more point for being in love with Italy!

In order to prepare and purify their bodies for Christmas Day, Italians avoid meat on la Vigilia (Christmas Eve). Although the idea is to eat lean, most indulge on multiple courses of fish… which may vary from seven to nine, and eleven to even thirteen!

Through centuries, Italians elaboraed different theories to explain why certain number of fish dishes is eaten on the Chrismas Eve. Some say that “seven” are to reperesent the seven days of the Universe creation. Others, suppose that seven dishes reperesent seven holy Sacraments of the Catholic Church. Those who opt for nine dishes say that “nine” stands for Christian Trinity. Instead, those who serve thirteen dishes explain that the number thirteen represents Jesus Christ and his twelve disciples. Finaly, those who make it up to eleven say that the number represents eleven disciples. Without Judas. Or without Christ.

My sceptic guess is that the number of fish dishes on Italian Vigilia directly depends on family’s dimension and appetites (not all love fish after all! others could eat it for eternity, just as me). And, sad but true, often on how much the family can afford. This or other way, Italians will always make it up for a decent explanation!

If you are curious to learn more about Italian Christmas food, read the post on how to have an Italian Christmas meal. It’s also includes mouth-watering recipes!

After what supposed to be a light Christmas Eve dinner, on Christmas Day, Italians have a large lunch that usually goes on all day. Mostly traditional dishes like pasta in brodo (pasta in broth), meat roasts and traditional desserts like panettone or pandoro are served.  (If you like the sound of Italain Chrismas sweets, find more on the post Italy’s sweet Christmas breads). Buon apetito!

Who is “responsible” for Christmas preparations?

According to 70% of Italians who have participated in the survey, the largest share of Natale preparations in Italy is left to the women. So, one out of two Italian ladies, spends most of her Natale season in the kitchen. The great thing is, that overwhelming majority (about 91%) of Italian women feel that their work is highly appreciated by their family members and frends. However, 42% of Italian women find Natale to be extremely stressful period.

According to the research, one out of three italian children is allowed by its parents to participate in decorating the Christmas tree. While only about one out of five Italian kids is actually responsible for decorating the rest of the house. Finally, 47% of Italian grandparents help in the kitchen.

Italian cult of life enjoyment and Christmas mood

On the consumption side, the research carried out by Nielsen shows that Italians go to the grocery store about 11 times during the last 4 weeks of the year. Moreover, in December Italians tend to include more products in the cart. Spending on groceries alone during Natale season is equal to 12% over the annual average. During the last month of a year, Italian grocery stores, super and hypermarkets of modern distribution normally generate an increase of turnover of over one billion euro. No wonder, since in December, Italians spend over 300 millions euro for panettone, pandoro, Christmas cakes, and chocolate. Let alone incremental sales of Sparkling wines and Champagne, which amount to over 100 million euro! As for salmon and shellfish/seafood, the incremental sales for both exceed 32 million euro.

In Italy Natale is the most happy period of a year not only for kids, but both for all SMEs as well as big enterprises. The sales are above the annual average and commercial growth is notable. Such consumption increase can be explained by the simple fact that in December most Itaian emploees have their thirteenth salary. This additional retribution is always followed by the urgent need to spend money for gifts and groceries. On the other hand, all these serves to demostrate once again how much Italians  do care about Christams festivities and how much they enjoy every moment of it! Italian cult of life enjoyment, after all, is not just a saying!

Merry Christmas!!! XoXo

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