If you have decided to visit Italy around Christmas, there are some words and expressions you absolutely need to know and recognize: from albero di Natale to presepe, our typical decorations for this time of the year, to the names of our best loved seasonal cakes and sweets; from the characters who make our Christmas a real Christmas, to the most typical events of the period, here comes our –almost!– complete Italian Christmas dictionary to help you have the best of times during your fantastic vacation.
Albero di Natale
Christmas tree. The albero di Natale is single-handedly the best known symbol of Christmas in the world. In Italy, people usually decorate it on the day of the Immacolata, on December the 8th. Favorite colors are red and gold, but blue and silver are also very common. Many families choose special ornaments, often kept through the generations, and also add handmade objects made by their children to their tree decorations.
This word is a passe-partout, used for almost every occasion. It is the general term used for every happy event or when congratulating somebody. It can be used both for Christmas and New Year’s Eve. However, to be more specific, you can say Buon Natale at Christmas.
Literally, Father Christmas, Santa Claus. Traditionally Babbo Natale gets into the house of every Italian through the chimney and, as everywhere else in the world, a lot of Italian fathers like to disguise themselves as Babbo Natale to surprise their children. Just as in the US, Babbo Natale is today a regular feature in the streets and the shopping malls of every town and city in the country.
The old lady we celebrate on the day of the Epyphany, on the 6th of January. The befana, just as Santa, delivers presents to children in the night between the 5th and the 6th of January, but beware: they are only for good kids! If you have been naughty, she will fill your stocking (that is where she traditionally leaves her gifts) with –sweet!– coal.
The brindisi, toast, is good for every occasion: on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve, brindisi are continuously repeated with a glass of Italian spumante or wine accompanied by the classical formula, auguri!
Stocking. This is the symbol of the Befana. Children love it, as they usually get loads of candy in it.
This is New Year’s Eve. Italians use to stay at home with their relatives or eat out, but all of them wait anxiously for the countdown to the new year.
Chestnuts. Eating chestnuts around the fireplace is a typical Italian tradition during the Winter, and at Christmas time in particular. It is very common to get caldarroste (roasted chestnuts) sellers in the street a bit everywhere in the country. Delicious and toasty, they taste of snow and cozyness.
Baby Jesus. Up to 20 years ago, it was Gesù Bambino and not Santa bringing presents to Italian kids. Santa ended up taking over after a few years of sharing the gift delivery business with him, probably in name of the popularity of American based tv series where Santa Claus was often cited and seen.
Mercatini di Natale
Christmas markets. Usually located in the central streets of towns and cities, traditional decoration and food are usually their best selling items.
Christmas. This word is the most used in this period as it is associated with all the symbols representing it. A lot of people go to church in the morning and then have a typical lunch of Natale with their relatives.
Pandoro and Panettone
Pandoro is, with panettone, the most typical of all Christmas cakes. Remember that pandoro is the one without raisins, different from panettone which, on the other hand, has both raisins and candied fruit. Usually children prefer the first one.
The nativity scene. Nativity scenes are the emblem of Christmas itself: there is the manger with Saint Joseph, the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ, along with many characters typical of village life, such as bakers, shepherds, fishermen.
Little nougats. Torroncini and torrone are typical candy of the Christmas period in Italy and you will find them in many flavours and sizes.
Bingo. The tradition of tombola is quite ancient, and its Neapolitan version is very famous. Tombola is popular everywhere though, as it is a good way for people to gather and spend some time together.
Vigilia di Natale
Christmas Eve. This is the day in which the famous cenone, our Christmas dinner, is held. The food cooked changes according to the tradition of each region and also from town to town. Some eat fish and other meat, but the common denominator is the high quantity – and quality!– of food eaten.
One last thing: don’t forget to learn numbers in Italians from 0 to 10 for New Year’s Eve, and the words un bicchiere di spumante (oon bee-kee-ai-rai dee spoo-mahn-tai), a glass of spumante, so you’ll be able to celebrate the new year with one!
Edited by Francesca Bezzone