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Christmas in Italy

Christmas is just around the corner once again. And if you find yourself among the fortunate ones about to spend it in Italy, I’m deeply envious.

Anyone who has previously enjoyed Yuletide in Italy will know what delights to expect. Everyone else will discover it a vastly different experience and infinitely thrilling one at that.

Elsewhere, Christmas festivities may be considered public property, in Italy they do it with added panache. In keeping with its status as the country where the period was first celebrated as a Christian festival, in the fourth century AD, Yuletide in Il Bel Paese lasts for the full 12 days of Christmas, starting on December 24 and ending on Epiphany, January 6.

Gifts are usually given and received at the end of the 12-day celebration. But Italy’s streets will typically come alive with lights and decorations around December 8, which is the Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception.

One of the country’s most incredible spectacles is in Turin, where some 20km of roads are illuminated from late November to early January. However, in Gubbio, Umbria, they boast they can top that – on Monte Ingino overlooking the town, a mammoth Christmas tree more than a kilometre high lies on the hillside.

The glittering show, with 450 lights, and the star that adorns its apex flicker into life in the first week in December and can be seen from 50km away. No surprises that it is listed as the largest Christmas tree on the planet in the Guinness book of records.

Further eye-catching displays are in Citta di Castello, Umbria, where on December 24, people don Father Christmas gear and canoe along the River Tiber before giving gifts to local kids. In Cortina d’Ampezzo, Veneto, a torchlight procession of skiers glides down the Alpine slopes of the ski resort the night before Christmas. There is also a torchlit procession in Abbadia di San Salvatore, near Montalcino, Tuscany.

Something you will frequently encounter in Italy at this time are presepi, exquisite nativity displays in virtually all major squares and churches. Naples reckons it has the best selection, particularly on Via San Gregorio Armeno in the city centre.

Christmas sees visitors to Rome in their tens of thousands. The capital city has displays in Piazza del Popolo, Piazza Navona, Piazza Euclide, Santa Maria in Trastevere and in the Vatican’s St Peter's Square.

In Rome you may also spot zampognari and pifferai, bagpipers and flute players from the Abruzzo, wearing sheepskin vests, long socks and cloaks to entertain crowds. St Peter’s Square hosts the Pontiff’s midnight mass on December 24, which even non-believers will appreciate for its sheer sense of occasion.

For many visitors, looking for properties for sale in Italy takes a back seat at this time of year. Instead, food plays a large part in celebrations, with baccala (salted dried cod fish), pasta, turkey and panettone bread staple parts of the Christmas dinner. Many Catholic households abstain from meat on Christmas Eve.

Italy is also a fantastic country in which to see out the old year and see in the new. Many places will host wonderful fireworks displays on December 31. If in Rome, go to Piazza del Popolo, which also features classical music and, the following day, acrobats.
Venice sees out the old year with a concert and fireworks display in St Mark’s Square. Many hardy locals see in the new with bracing dip on the Lido Beach. For something really unusual, catch La Fiera del Bue Grasso (fat ox fair) in Bologna. As well as fireworks, the beast is covered in ribbons and flowers and given to one prize draw winner at the end of the festivities.

Try explaining that to airport customs if you’re the lucky winner!