Join Italians as they get ready for the holidays, shopping at Christmas markets, savoring seasonal foods and visiting Nativity scenes in Rome, Florence, Assisi and Naples. In between the pre-holiday activities, pause often to savor the moment in a café and relax over a cozy dinner for two in a traditional trattoria.
Colorful street markets fill the month of December and last through Jan. 6, Epiphany, Italy’s traditional gift-giving day. Streets are strung with colored lights and market kiosks overflow with decorations, crèche sets, holiday gifts, cakes, candies and seasonal foods. Stop at a chestnut vendor to share a cone of hot, roasted chestnuts as you browse.
Nativity Scenes from Assisi
St. Francis of Assisi is thought to have originated the public Nativity scene, or presepio, as the Italians call them. In 1223, the saint constructed a replica of the Nativity at his hermitage in Greccio, on the mountainside above Assisi. Since then the scene has been recreated at his hermitage each year, and the idea caught on all over Italy. Some are living tableaux with real people, others are figures of wood or terracotta, often dressed in real clothing. Also near Assisi, the little town of Bastia Umbra has a fair of craftsmen and old print collectors the Sunday before December around the church of Santa Croce.
Christmas in Rome
In Piazza Navona, a huge open market features craftsmen selling hand-carved Nativity figures, embroidered linens and lace, knitted clothing, pottery, fruit breads, cakes and almond nougat. At the piazza’s center is a life-sized presepio.
Most Roman churches have precepi, some featuring priceless centuries-old figures, and larger outdoor scenes are found in Piazza del Popolo, St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican and on the Spanish Steps, where the crèche includes an 18th-century street scene.
Via San Gregorio Armeno is filled with craftsmen displaying handmade Nativity figures carved from wood and dressed in satin and lace finery. Other figures are made from terracotta, plaster, ceramic and papier mache. In Galleria Umberto, a huge precipio is set in familiar Neapolitan scenes. A collection of crèche scenes and figures, some as early as the 15th century, are displayed at the Museo della Certosa di San Martino, on a hill overlooking the city.
Florence Christmas Celebrations
Few cities go as all-out for Christmas as Florence, where thousands of lights bathe the palaces, piazze and streets from late November through Epiphany. Stazione Leopolda transforms into a magical North Pole during the second week in December, with star-lit rooms of Babbo Natale’s house, hot cocoa at Villaggio del Cioccolato and a craft market.
Villaggio dei Popoli, Italy’s Fair Trade Association, has a market in Piazza Annigoni beginning December and in Piazza Isolotto from Dec. 12. In Piazza Santa Croce, a huge German Christmas market, Mercato Tedesco di Natale, sells grilled sausages, hot mulled wine, decorated gingerbread and traditional alpine crafts from through Dec. 21. From Dec. 16–21, Piazza Indipendenza is filled with Italian-made crafts and foods.
While Italy can’t match the number of Christmas markets that fill German, Austrian and Swiss towns and cities, it certainly offers December travelers a taste of an Italian Christmas. And because it is a low season with comparatively few tourists, visitors can enjoy Florence and Rome with locals.