While millions of people travel to Italy during the summer months, if they only knew the treasures that would await them by taking a winter break instead and enjoying the magic of Christmas in Italy. Yes, the holiday has become a bit more commercialized here in recent years. Yet, Christmas in Italy is still a holiday of family, spirituality, food, lights, age-old artistry and the wonder of miracles.
From the Christmas markets in Alto-Aldige to a 250-person strong live Nativity pageant in Puglia, there are Christmas enchantments and surprises in every corner of Italy. Whether you're planning a trip to Italy this holiday season or want to gain some Italian Christmas inspiration, come on along on a journey through Christmas in Italy.
For more, receive a free copy of Dream of Italy's 35-page guide to Christmas in Italy. Also give the gift of Italy with a gift subscription to the award-winning newsletter Dream of Italy -- includes two bonus DVDs of Italy travel documentaries by filmmaker Steven McCurdy.
On Christmas Eve, all eyes turn to Vatican City where the Pope says Midnight Mass. St. Peter's Square displays a life-size Nativity scene as well as a 100-foot Christmas tree. While the Vatican is the center of Rome's Christmas celebrations, there are many more ways to enjoy <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kathy-mccabe/four-places-to-celebrate-_b_795662.html" target="_hplink">Christmas in Rome</a> including markets, a Nativity museum and special church services.
Milan's cathedral (<em>Duomo</em>) looks magical during the Christmas season. The city of Milan is famous for its shopping and that's no different at holiday time when Christmas markets fill the city. Locations include <em>Castello Sforzesco</em>, <em>Piazza Sant'Ambrogio</em> and the streets leading up to the Duomo.
Each year, at the end of the November and just in time for Christmas the city of Turin presents Luci d'Artista, an installation of art exhibits using light as the medium. The displays transform the streets of the city into a magical, other wordly place.
Italians are crazy for <em>presepi</em> (Nativity scenes) and presepi-central is the street of <em><a href="http://www.dreamofitaly.com/public/Naples-Italy-Christmas-Street-Presepi-Nativity-Scenes-Artisans.cfm" target="_hplink">Via San Gregorio Armeno</a></em> in Naples where craftsmen use techniques handed down for generations to create the traditional figurines of Jesus, Mary, Joseph and the Wise Men, as well as more contemporary figures like Pope Benedict and Barack Obama.
The <em>zampognari</em> are shepherds from Abruzzo and surrounding regions who play the <em>zampogna</em>, a bagpipe-like instrument. In days gone by, they came down from their work in the hills to entertain their families and others for Christmas. You can still see these shepherds at events throughout Italy, even strolling the streets of Rome during the festive season.
Christmas markets are held throughout Italy but are particularly popular in the northern part of the country which has been influenced by the strong Germanic tradition of holiday markets. <a href="http://www.bolzano.net/english/christmas-market-bolzano.html" target="_hplink">Bolzano's Christmas market</a> is the largest in Italy.
Italians enjoy the tradition of reenacting the birth of Jesus through live Nativity scenes. One of the largest takes place in <a href="http://dreamofitaly2.blogspot.com/search?q=puglia+nativity" target="_hplink">Puglia</a> where 250 residents of <em>Tricase</em> dress in period clothing. This photo captures the <a href="http://www.umbriaontheblog.com/2011/12/live-nativity-pageants-in-umbria/" target="_hplink">live Nativity pageant of <em>Armenzano</em></a>, near <em>Assisi</em>. (<em>Photo by Roberto Pollastrini</em>)
The Tuscan city of <em>Siena</em> is filled with holiday cheer with Christmas markets in the city's piazzas, Christmas concerts and the famous Christmas tree in the center of <em>Piazza dei Salimbeni</em>.
Santa Claus a.k.a <em>Babbo Natale</em> (Father Christmas) is a relatively new introduction to Christmas in Italy. The character most eagerly anticipated by Italian children is <em><a href="http://www.dreamofitaly.com/public/Christmas-in-Italy-In-Time-for-the-Epiphany-The-Legend-of-La-Befana-Free-Italy-Travel-Advice.cfm" target="_hplink">La Befana</a></em>, a witch who rides around on her broom on the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6th) delivering goodies.
On Christmas Eve, Italian families indulge in the traditional Christmas Eve (<em>la Viglia</em>) "<a href="http://www.dreamofitaly.com/public/Christmas-Eve-in-Italy-Celebrating-the-Feast-of-Seven-Fishes-Sicilian-Style-Free-Italy-Travel-Advice.cfm" target="_hplink">Feast of Seven Fishes</a>." The tradition dates back to the days of Roman Catholic abstinence on holy days. "Seven" may relate to the number of sacraments or the number of days it took God to create the world.
Reportedly, the average Italian family consumes 5.5 pounds of <em>panettone</em> - a cupola-shaped rich, buttery cake - per year and much of this is during the Christmas season. This delectable dessert has its origins in Milan.
To wish your Italian friends "Merry Christmas" say <em>Buon Natale</em>!
Follow Kathy McCabe on Twitter: www.twitter.com/dreamofitaly