Abound with citrus fruit and its warm rays of sunshine filtering through twisting branches of olive trees, Italy is a sight to behold in the summer months. The winter, however, brings beauty to il bel paese in a different way; white peaks of snow capped mountains dominate the landscape, while cosy villages are illuminated from afar by the light of their fireplaces. As the holiday spirit takes hold in December, Italy truly takes on a distinctive charm of its own. From its northernmost regions to its southernmost sea-ports, each city has its own way celebrating Christmas and ringing in the festive season.
Many Italians look forward to December when the cold beckons, providing a welcome escape from the city to the ski slopes. And, luckily if you’re in Milan, a countryside escape is right on your doorstep. As the city is located in close proximity to the Alps, it makes it an ideal ski location with hills for a range of abilities. From the 7th of December, the city celebrates its Patron Saint with the Festa di Sant’Ambrogio; the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II at the heart of the city is transformed into a scene from a Christmas fairy tale with families gathering together to delight in caldarroste, - roasted chestnuts - in piazzas across the city. To add to the festive magic, a large Christmas tree is erected in Piazza Duomo, as well as the O Bej, O Bej market, the name of which derives from the Milanese dialect and translates as “how nice, how nice.”)
Strolling around the shops and market stalls, it is possible to nibble on panettone, or celebrate as the locals do with a multi-course seafood dinner.
The dulcet hum of Christmas carols can be heard echoing down the narrow streets of Venice as the city comes to life for the festive season. The Rialto Bridge is bedecked with sparkling lights while Christmas markets, such as Natale in Laguna at Campo Santo Stefano, and abundantly populated with street-food vendors, selling seafood dishes, merrily greet church-goers and last-minute shoppers alike. Santa Claus can at times be seen running around on stilts, alongside a companion in Carnevale dress. The Natale di Vetro, (also known as Christmas of Glass), on Murano Island is another highlight of Venice’s festivities. The event itself features a 20-foot-tall glass Christmas tree, delicately adorned with glass decorations.
On Christmas Eve, many Venetians take a stroll down the canals to Saint Mark’s Basilica to attend the Midnight Mass. A week later, Venetians ring in the New Year with fireworks, music, Bellini Brindisi (a toast), and a kiss at midnight. On New Year’s Day the Italian version of the “polar bear swim” takes place, with locals jumping into the water at Lido Beach.
For many a millennia, Venetians fasted over Christmas, with the exception of lunch when they were permitted to have mandorlato (a nougat) and a small meal of Bigoli co la Sardela, (Venetian spaghetti with sardines), pasta, of course, being integral to the Italian diet. In modern day Venice, locals can now be found feasting throughout the day on bread, charcuterie and fish-based dishes to mark the festive season.
The Christmas tree outside the beautiful Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore (Florence's famous Duomo) glistens in the dusk and folks gather to witness presepe, the tradition of Christmas nativity scene displays. A life sized scena della Natività (nativity scene) appears in the Piazza del Duomo every year, made in terracotta by an artisan in Impruneta. The Cardinal of Florence prepares his sermon for the Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve and a maze of markets has taken over Piazza Santissima Annunziata, where merry holiday-makers sip steaming cups of Vin Brulé.
Panforte, the Tuscan version of the Italian holiday treat panettone, is high on the must-try list of festive foods when visiting Florence. Also stay on the alert for local specialities like hand-crafted tortellini, spicy pork sausage, and mostarda. A seasonal dessert, mostarda consists of candied fruit in a mustard-flavored syrups, with cheeses and wines. A surpsing delicacy definitely worth trying.
In the historic city of Naples, nestled at the heart of the town, lies Via San Gregorio Armeno, an entire street that pays homeage to Christmas. This ancient street is lined with endless shops dedicated to presepe - the Christmas Nativity tradition - and is famous throughout the world. Whilst you can visit at any point in the year, at Christmas Via San Gregorio Armeno is even more magical. Visit the The Museo Nazionale di San Martino to see its collection of presepi dating back to the 1800s.
Neapolitan holidays are deeply rooted in local food traditions. Specialities such as struffoli (dough cooked and coated in honey and sprinkles), roccocò (hard biscuits), susamielli (honey-nut biscuits baked in an S shape) and mustacciuoli (pastry with delicately spiced cakes dipped in chocolate) are obligatory when visiting the capital of Campania.
If you fancy some sun over the Christmas season, you can’t go wrong with spending the holiday in Sicily. Palermo, the biggest city on the island, has a lot to offer in December from traditional Christmas markets to beautiful Catholic churches complete with gospel concerts and living Nativities. However, the pièce de résistance of the festive period in Palermo is the Street Food Festival. With local vendors selling tasty dishes from panelle, and crocché to pane con le milza, sfincione and stigghiola, you can get a real taste of this beautiful region.
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