Being abroad for the Christmas holidays can be a weird experience.
If Christmas is not your thing, you are in heaven because you can avoid the traditional celebrations and the parties you don’t care about, without even needing an excuse. But if you like Christmas, you may feel a bit out of place.
When I got my university degree, my parents gifted me with a nice trip to Vienna. I had been wanting to see Vienna at Christmas for ages and I was over the moon with joy. We thought things would work exactly like back home in Italy, so we planned to stay out all Christmas Eve afternoon and end the day with a nice dinner.
Beginning in the early afternoon, little by little, shops started closing. Cafès too and restaurants as well. In just a couple of hours, the center of Vienna turned into a deserted town and we could do nothing but go back home and cook a sad dinner with what we had in the fridge – thank God we were renting an apartment!
So, if you are going to spend Christmas in Italy and don’t want to end up as disappointed as the younger me on a cold winter day in Vienna, this post is for you: I thought I would write some tips and ideas to feel more into the celebration and spend Christmas in Italy exactly like an Italian would do.
First of all, la vigilia di Natale (Christmas Eve) does not end at 2 pm, here in Italy – I don’t know if things in Austria have changed now, to be honest, it was a long time ago. Christmas Eve is usually quite busy and people stay out all day to do their last minute shopping, meet friends for an aperitivo or get ready for Midnight Mass.
So no worries if you want to stay out on that day, you’ll have plenty of things to do! In most cases, it is the last day for Christmas markets and Christmas events, so if you do not want to miss them, make sure to take the chance to go see them. Christmas markets used to be mostly a thing of the north but nowadays they are almost everywhere in the country. Moreover, there are traditional celebrations in every place.
I love Christmas Eve, especially in the afternoon, because people are done with work and start feeling festive. It is very common to have an aperitivo around 6.30 pm, so find a nice bar and enjoy some Christmas cheer. I am sure you will find someone you can enjoy a glass of spumante with.
After the aperitivo, most people go home and have dinner with the family, but many others stay outside and celebrate. For example, my local bar is open until midnight and offers some light buffet-style dinner, so that we can stay there and wait for the midnight toast. Maybe you can find a place that does the same, I am sure it would be fun.
If you are in Italy, no matter if you are religious or not, I would recommend not to miss la messa di mezzanotte (Midnight Mass). It is held in most churches and it is usually a very heartfelt celebration, with choirs and lots of people singing. Moreover, after Midnight Mass, charity associations usually offer panettone and vin brulè (mulled wine) outside the church, to celebrate all together.
And then comes Christmas Day.
Il giorno di Natale (Christmas Day) is a very important day in Italy – the most important day of the year, I would say. Italians usually spend it with their families but, even if you don’t have an Italian family to adopt you for the day, I am sure you’ll find lots of ways to celebrate it in the proper way.
First of all, grocery shops and stores are usually open in the morning – usually until 12 pm – for the very last minute food shopping, so if you need another slice of panettone or some delicacies for your breakfast, you won’t have problems finding them.
Most Italians have their big Christmas lunch at home but they might take the chance for an aperitivo before sitting at the table (and being there for the rest of the day), so if you want to be part of the celebrations, find a nice bar and order a glass of spumante or prosecco – they are not the same thing, you know that right?
Bars will be busy until midday and then people will start moving towards their lunch destination. Even if, as I said, many people spend Christmas at home, just as many decide to eat Christmas lunch at the restaurant. Back in the days, when there were more than 20 people for our pranzo di Natale and nobody wanted to cook, we would always go to the restaurant and it was really nice!
Restaurants usually have il menù di Natale (Christmas menu) on such day, a fixed menu that varies from 4 to 20 courses (easily) and always includes some of the most traditional dishes of this time of the year. One thing though: Christmas lunch at the restaurant is quite popular and good restaurants are easily sold out, so I’d recommend you do some research in advance if you want to spend Christmas eating out.
The rest of the afternoon is basically quite a chilled day. People might go out for a late afternoon stroll or go see a movie – going to the movies on Christmas evening is a very popular thing to do, here in Italy. Bars start being busy again, with people having a coffee or something warm to get ready for the night – and for another day of celebrations, since the 26th of December is still a holiday, in Italy.
Il giorno di Santo Stefano (Saint Stephen’s Day) is a much more relaxed day, so you can basically do what you want. If you are in a tourist location, museums and attractions will be open and sometimes even shops as well, so you’ll have plenty of activities to fill your day. And if you are still tired from all the eating of the day before, it is a perfect day to just relax!
Have you ever spent your Christmas holidays in Italy? If so, what did you do? Let me know!
If you are interested in learning more about Italian culture and lifestyle, I’d suggest you jump on my digital Vespa and join Be Italian For A Month, your 30-day virtual journey to Italy.
You will also learn some Italian words, you’ll receive some typical Italian recipes – ready to be cooked and enjoyed, you’ll get to tour around Italy, and learn about Italian traditions, proverbs, stereotypes, you name it. Plus, some cute surprises along the way!