4 things you must do over Christmas in Italy

christmas in italy

After spending the best part of October in pure Halloween frenzy (yes, we did assimilate that one), our cities have gone straight into Christmas frenzy mode with barely a week’s respite. Chances are you are experiencing something similar: Santas and fairy lights are cropping up at an increasingly fast pace on your high street and you are outwardly hating it while secretly loving it. If you are planning on traveling abroad, however, it is not that unreasonable to start getting down to business now. In fact, you might even be slightly late: high-season bookings can be tricky and expensive, particularly if you aim for the more popular destinations. If you are still looking at Google Maps, trying to pinpoint your ideal Christmas holiday destination and considering Italy, there are a few suggestions we can offer you. There is plenty to do and see in Italy over Christmas of course, but these 4 tips will help you get the best out of your Christmas experience here.

1. Go local and try something new

christmas food italyAs a rule of thumb, we suggest that you avoid the more obvious choices and the main cities, unless you are fan of big crowds and long queues. This is in fact the ideal time to immerse yourself in the local life and vibe of small villages and towns with obscure names and experience the local traditions. Christmas is a deeply felt holiday in Italy and chances are the tiny village just five miles away from where you are staying has a three-hundred year old church with a stunning nativity scene or a traditional Christmas market where local craftsmen exhibit and sell their hand-made goods. Moreover, nearly every region has its own typical Christmas recipes and you will want to try each and every single one of them, because you have next to no chances of ever finding them on your local pizzeria menu.

2. Christmas markets: a European tradition with an Italian flavour

christmas market italyChristmas markets are a tradition originating in central Europe, which is why most of them have a distinctly German flavour. Trentino Alto Adige has assimilated this tradition earlier and probably deeper than any other Italian region, so much so that they are still called Weihnachtsmarkt even in the areas in which German is not the first spoken language. If Christmas markets are your cup of tea, we warmly recommend you visit the ones in Bolzano and Brunico, as they are among the most ancient and impressive, but in truth there’s hardly a village in Italy that doesn’t have its very own traditional market in this season. We also suggest you shirk the main cities, whose Christmas markets tend to cater to tourists and are basically an array of industrially produced trinkets with fairy lights mounted on, and head for the towns whose names you have never heard before, where you are much more likely to come across local delicacies and artefacts. There’s one exception to this rule: Naples. The most heartfelt Christmas tradition here is the creation of imaginative nativity scenes and for this purpose Christmas markets sell figurines that you are unlikely to find elsewhere, typically modelled after modern-day celebrities, politicians or footballers.

3. Skiing holidays in Italy

skiing christmas italyDecember is not as cold as it gets in Italy, but it tends to be snowier than the rest of the winter season, at least in some regions. Italy’s peculiar geography makes for incredibly diverse landscapes within a relatively small territory, therefore on the same day you could have swimmers sunbathing on the southern coast of Sicily and skiers in bubble-hats sliding merrily down a snowy slope or drinking mulled wine in an alpine cottage. If this second scenario appeals to you, you might want to head for the Alps. Depending on your preference and on the starting point of your journey, you will have a vast range of destinations to choose from. You can go for the western border and visit Valle d’Aosta or go eastward and pick Trentino Alto Adige. If you are in Milan, Bormio, in Lombardy, might seem like an obvious and accessible choice. Most skiing destinations on the Alps, however, tend to be on the expensive side: from Cervinia to Trento, from Cortina d’Ampezzo to Courmayeur, skiing hotels and facilities mark December as the peak of the high-season. While they might offer a higher degree of glamour and a better nightlife than most similar locations, they will most definitely claim a sizeable chunk of your budget. There are, of course, cheaper and equally beautiful alternatives, that most tourists tend to ignore for the basic reason that they are not in the north of the Country. Tourists visiting Italy are prepared to accept the fact that it will not be boiling hot on the Alps over Christmas, but seemingly unprepared to contemplate the notion that there are mountains in the central and southern regions of the Country and that it snows on those too. If you are landing in Rome, for instance, you might want to head towards Rieti and the local peak, Terminillo. Depending on the season you could also go to Tuscany, still get to visit Florence and then find your way to mount Abetone. Finally, if you are up for a really unconventional choice, you could pick a southern destination for your skiing holiday, such as Campitello Matese in Molise or even Nicolosi, in Sicily. No, you will not get the typical alpine scenery in any of these locations, but you will experience Italy in a thoroughly unique way and que guarantee that your holiday photos will not look like everyone else’s.
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4. Nativities and reenactments

nativity christmas italyIt is a long-running national joke that northern Italians like Christmas trees, while southern Italians favour nativity scenes. Fake national divisions aside, however, it is true that most southern regions have a magnificent and ancient tradition of nativity scenes and related crafts. From wood to papier-mâché, from chalk to bronze, nativity figurines can be found in almost every southern Italian home (not counting millennials) and in some towns a life-sized nativity scene will be set up and exhibited for the duration of the holidays and sometimes for the whole of December and well into January. More often than not, on Christmas day you may walk by what you have taken to be tall papier-mâché statue and spot St. Joseph sneezing or hear the ox mooing. The accepted procedure in such cases is to do a double-take, realize the ox is in fact a cow and that the nativity scene is being re-enacted by living humans and animals (with the exception of the Baby Jesus, which is seldom impersonated by a real baby for obvious reasons). Among the cities that historically display beautiful, large and impressive nativity scenes – either with living statues or papier-mâché ones – we suggest you visit Greccio, where whole tradition is said to have been started by St. Francis of Assisi, Laveno, a beautiful town in the vicinity of Lake Maggiore and Lecce, in Apulia.

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Angela

She is a part-time digital nomad. She would go full-time, if only she could stay away from Berlin for long enough without pining for a Pretzel. She was born in Italy and she enjoys life as an expat, but visits home often enough and can still remember how to bake a perfect lasagna. She is passionate about writing, marketing, languages and the systematic demolition of cultural stereotypes.

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