Carnevale La Madonna che Scappaenice

Exploring Italian Holidays and Traditions: Cuisine, Culture, and Celebration in Italy

We all know there are some fantastic and utterly unique places to visit in Italy, and with a little planning before your visit, you may be able also catch some of the hundreds of festivals and traditions this beautiful country hosts every year.

Italy, with its long and convoluted history, is steeped in traditions many of them pre-dating the Roman era, over two thousand years ago.  Many regions of Italy share the same (or similar) traditions, although they may be slightly different from north to south or east to west. 

This article takes a look at some of the main traditions and festivals throughout the Italian year, and what you might expect to find or see if you are lucky enough to be visiting Italy.

Befana/Epifania – January 6th

La Befana
Photo Credit: Steve Atkinson

Epiphany (Epifania in Italian) marks the end of the long Christmas holiday season and is a Catholic holiday that celebrates and is a symbolic day dedicated to, the three kings or three wise men who followed the star of Bethlehem to present gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the newborn Christ.

In the larger Italian towns and cities such as Florence, there are re-enactments of the event with the costumed ‘kings’ parading the streets.  Typically, Italian schoolchildren go back to school the first weekday after Epiphany.

Another ancient tradition that takes place around the same time is that of La Befana, in which children are brought sweets on the night of the 5th by the old witch figure, Befana.  Christmas treats, such as panettone or pandoro are often left out for Befana in case she gets a little hungry.  She, in return, traditionally leaves candles in stockings for the good children, or coal (nowadays often substituted with black hard candy) in them for the naughty ones.

The city of Venice holds a Befana regatta on its canals in honor of this ancient tradition. Hot on the heels of Befana, Saint Anthony’s Day (Festa di San Antonio Abate) is another festival celebrated in parts of Italy on the 17th of January for the patron saint of butchers, domestic animals, basket makers, and gravediggers!

Italian Carnevale – The weeks leading up to Easter

The weeks leading up to Easter, are Carnevale time in many Italian towns – an updated version of an ancient Catholic tradition, when people would overindulge in advance of the penitent time of Lent, when, among other things, you could not eat meat.  The origin of this tradition, like many others, probably predates the catholic church and originated in the mists of pagan history, the word Carnevale is presumed to have originated from the Latin expression ‘carnem levare’ which meant ‘taking away the meat’, and throughout the centuries it evolved into the modern expression of ‘Carnevale’ (which essentially means goodbye meat).

While you will see many variations of Carnevale in the different Italian towns, the most famous takes place in Venice, where you will see the world-famous and spectacular masquerade balls, parades along the Grand Canal, music, masks, and wigs being paraded throughout the town. It’s of the best things you can do in Venice.

Italian pranks and mischief-making are often the main themes of Carnevale, and even if you are a visitor you can join in the fun by hiring a mask and gown to blend into the general mayhem.

Easter – March or April

Italian Festivals
Photo Credit: Steve Atkinson

Easter or Pasqua is a major holiday in Italy, with shops gearing up for the main event many weeks in advance.  Be warned it can get very busy, especially in the major towns over this period. Celebrations of Easter differ throughout the country.  Florence, for example, has a unique way of marking this event, by having the Archbishop firing a dove-shaped rocket into a wagon full of fireworks (note: nearly all Italian celebrations involved loud bangs and spectacular firework displays)!  On Palm Sunday, it is often customary to place palm leaves and olive branches outside your house.

You will also find that many towns have parades (sometimes very solemn) throughout the period, where effigies of Christ and the Madonna are carried through the town often culminating in a ceremony such as the ‘La Madonna che Scappa’ (the running Madonna) where a team of ‘bearers’ race across the Piazza Garibaldi with an incredibly heavy effigy of the Madonna racing to meet her ’risen’ son. This spectacle takes place every Easter Sunday in the pretty medieval town of Sulmona and is one of the many festivals that take place in the Abruzzo region of Italy every year, but get there early if you plan to visit as it draws a heck of a crowd.

Ferragosto – August 15th

The Catholic holiday marking the Assumption of the Virgin Mary coincides with Ferragosto (from the Latin Feriae Augusti, which the Roman emperor Augustus introduced to mark the end of the agricultural working year and offer rest to the people after the hard work of tending the crops). This is a one-day national holiday when most Italians take the day off work, but also many businesses shut down completely for the entire week.

In towns and cities, you will find many shops and businesses closed, in stark contrast to the coastal resorts where everything will be open to deal with the influx of beach-loving Italian families. On the day of Ferragosto itself, many families will also opt for a picnic in the countryside or by a lake with friends and family.

Depending on where you find yourself in Italy around this time, you may come across religious processions, food festivals, or if in beautiful Sienna, the Palio dell’Assunta, the famous bare-back horse race taking place in the city on the 2nd of July and during the Ferrogosto celebrations on the 16th August.

All Saint’s Day/All Souls Day – November 1st

All Saint’s Day or Ognissanti is a national bank holiday in Italy with most shops and businesses closing for the day and masses are held throughout the country in in all the major town churches.  The following day, November 2nd, is All Souls Day, and although not a bank holiday, many families will often visit the local cemeteries to visit their loved ones who have passed, typically bringing flowers and to light candles.  During this period many Italian regions produce special sweets to mark the occasion, such as the frutta martorana (colored marzipan fruits – a Sicilian tradition),  which are made and eaten on All Souls Day. 

Halloween, which typically precedes these two days, is a recent import but has gained popularity over recent years.

Immaculate Conception – December 8th

The Festa dell’Immacolata Concezione (or Immaculate Conception) is a bank holiday in Italy and is the traditional start of the Christmas celebrations.  It is a Catholic tradition celebrating the belief that Mary was born free of sin.  Many Italian families start to decorate their homes on this day in readiness for the Christmas celebrations.

Christmas Day (or Natale) – 25th December

Christmas Day or Natale in Italian, is a major event in the Italian calendar.  In the days leading up to the big day the towns and cities are decorated with colorful light displays. There are so many wonderful places to for an Italian Christmas. Churches are visited by the faithful to see the intricate and often enormous presepi, elaborate nativity scenes, that often include lights and moving figures.

Italian Christmas and New Year in Rome
Photo Credit: Steve Atkinson

On Christmas day itself, nearly everything is closed, except for the churches, with most Italians spending the day with their families, where lunch might consist of traditional lasagna, followed by traditional cakes such as panettone or pandoro.  Christmas in Italy is deeply rooted in the religious aspects of the season and is generally less commercialized than you might find in the US or UK.

St. Stephen’s Day – 26th December

This is the final bank holiday on the Italian calendar and offers an easy transition between the Christmas festivities and normal life.  On this day people may opt to visit with friends, take a day trip or simply chill out.  Again many shops and businesses will be closed on this day, but not all and you may see the bars and coffee shops coming back to life.

New Year’s Eve/New Year’s Day – 31st December/1st January

New Year or Capodanno, is celebrated throughout Italy with fireworks and food.  Many hotels and restaurants host parties on New Year’s Eve, with set menus, often consisting of the typical New Year fare of cotechino (pork sausage) or zampone (pig’s trotter) served in a small lake of lentils, a symbol of good fortune for the year ahead.

Other traditions that are still often adhered to are all about ensuring ‘good luck’ for the coming year, such as wearing red underwear on New Year’s Eve (yes you’ll see a lot of red underwear in the shops in the leadup to this time), or eating 12 grapes (one for every stroke of the clock).  The fireworks are for chasing away any evil spirits.

In many of the smaller towns in Italy, the majority of the bars will probably be closed (as everyone, including bar staff, will be at a party), but in the larger towns such as Rome it will be a different scene where many Italians might celebrate in the streets and piazzas with open-air concerts or flamboyant firework displays such as takes place in Rome near the Coliseum. 

New Year’s Day is the first bank holiday of the new year and, especially in the smaller towns it will be very quiet, everything will be closed except for the churches.

Bonus: Sagra Festival

These local lesser-known festivals are what you really should be looking for when traveling through Italy so you can embrace the family-style celebrations just like a local. Most are dedicated to celebrating a specific local food, such as pasta, wine, pastries, olive oil, and cheeses. They have games and crafts and plenty of entertainment. These happen all year round and are a great way to experience Italy if you can’t be there during one of the other major holidays.

Here are a few things to remember when it is festival time in Italy:

  • For all public holidays/festivals a lot of shops and businesses close, so plan ahead if you need supplies.
  • Especially for New Year, book your parties well ahead of time if you can, as the New Year’s parties that the local restaurants/hotel host soon get booked up and you don’t want to miss out.
  • If you don’t like loud bangs, take some earplugs to many of the celebrations in advance of some very loud fireworks.  Children too often throw fireworks in the streets (jumping Jacks etc.), so this could be a testing time for any furry friends you have traveling with you.

All these Italian traditions are social affairs not just for family, and friends but also for soon-to-be friends, so don’t be shy,  join in and enjoy these great traditions if you get the opportunity.

This article originally appeared on The World Overload. Featured Photo Credit: Pixabay

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