Christmas in Italy

Christmas in Umbria

Christmas in Italy, and for us of course Christmas in Umbria, is a special celebration every year. And extra special for us. I still remember our very first Christmas in Italy yesterday. The year is 1989. During the autumn holidays we were on holiday for the first time in Italy and there we saw Polmone. I will never forget that moment. A ruin of a farm on top of a deserted hill that contrasted with the orange-colored autumn sky. Both still completely ignorant of the fact that we would one day live there and receive guests.
We went back during the Christmas holidays. To show the children and to sign the preliminary purchase contract. Then our adventure began. So Christmas in Italy and especially Christmas in Umbria is very special for us. Are you curious about our story how we found Polmone? Then read here my article in the Gazzetta of Polmone about how we ended up in Umbria.

Christmas atmosphere in Italy

Christmas in Italy with our homemade nativity scene with terracotta figurines from Ripabianca

For me, Christmas in Italy is the scent of wood stoves, damp cold, brightly colored plastic balls on the Christmas tree in the villages with fast flashing lights, beautifully lit streets, the Christmas tree in Piazza IV Novembre in Perugia and the beautifully decorated shop windows in the Corso Vannucci. At our house the lights are on in the Christmas tree and outside our home-made nativity scene is in an old wine bottle with terracotta figurines from Ripabianca. The wood stove snorts and we enjoy an authentic Umbrian Christmas meal.

How is Christmas celebrated in Italy

Christmas in Italy means going to a cozy Christmas market. For example in the Rocca Paolina in Perugia

In the Netherlands, most people decorate the Christmas tree after Sinterklaas and make their house cozy 'Christmas ready'. Here in Italy, the nativity scene and Christmas tree are invariably set up on December 8 when the Immacolata Concezione (Immaculate Conception of Mary) is celebrated or la Festa della Madonna. That is also the starting signal for the cozy Christmas markets that you can visit. The nativity scenes are very special in Italy.

Did you know that the nativity scene was introduced by Francis of Assisi?

The very first portrayal of the birth of Jesus dates back to the year 1223 in the town of Greccio in the province of Rieti. Francis of Assisi was there once in 1209 when his help was enlisted in terrible attacks on the village by wolves.
There he became friends with the nobleman Giovanni Velita di Greccio, who asked him to come and preach there. After a trip to Palestine, Greccio made Francis so think of Bethlehem that he wanted to portray the birth of Jesus in that area. He asked his friend Giovanni Velita di Greccio to find a cave where a feeding place could be created for an ox and a donkey. He ordered it to be made into a cradle of rags and straw, followed by an ox, a donkey and a rag doll.
The first living nativity scene in history. And according to legend, a miracle happened during Mass. During his sermon on the birth of what he called the god of the poor, the nobleman Giovanni Velita di Greccio saw the rag doll move and come to life. He even saw Saint Francis take the living child in his arms.
Most likely, the nobleman was so moved by Francis's sermon that he saw more than there was, but this is what the legend tells.

Live nativity scene

Christmas in Italy in Rotecastello completely transformed into a living nativity scene

Every year since 1972, the birth of the god of the poor has been staged in Greccio in a living nativity scene with costumes from the year 1200 from the Teatro dell'Opera in Rome. And following the live nativity scene in Greccio, you can see live nativity scenes in many places in Italy. A few years ago, all of Rotecastello, a small village near Polmone, was set up as a living nativity scene. And every year, the living nativity scene in Fratta Todina is the ultimate end to all Christmas festivities with a dazzling fireworks display on the evening of January 6.

But perhaps it was San Gaetano who introduced the nativity scene

By reading myself a little into the history of the Nativity scene, I came across the, according to the Neapolitans, the real inventor of the Nativity scene. According to Neapolitan tradition, it is Saint Gaetano who really introduced the nativity scene. He was a clergyman who lived in the changing tradition of the church during the time of Martin Luther and wanted to bring the church more to the common people. That is why he had a nativity scene made in the church where ordinary people could come and see, experience and recognize the miracle of the birth of Christ.
He arranged for people to be alerted to the coming birth of Christ by letting people who played the simple shepherd's flute, so-called zampognari, play and sing through the streets of Naples. It was a success and nativity scenes were also set up in other churches. And soon there were also nativity scenes in the houses of the nobles, later of the rich bourgeoisie and later in the homes of the common people.

Nativity scene making has become a national folk art in Italy

And now the nativity scene is made in almost every Italian family. And it is not just a manger with all the famous figures around it in a stable with a star hanging from it. They are often entire villages with paper mache hills, where you can see the Italian rural or village life depicted and of course somewhere in a stable the baby Jesus with Joseph and Mary. There are rivers where real water flows. You see wood fires, people at work. Villages that lie against a hill with those beautiful terracotta roof tiles, where the street lamps are switched on from time to time and village life slowly comes to rest. True works of art and a tradition passed on from father to son. Each region has its own type of nativity scene and the Neapolitan is the most famous.
Every year competitions are held in Italy to see who made the most beautiful nativity scene. For example, almost every year we go to the historic center of Massa Martana where we see a huge collection of nativity scenes from all regions of Italy, made by ordinary people into famous artists. The annual exhibition is called Presepi d'Italia in Massa Martana.

Christmas in Italy with Massimo Rao .'s Neapolitan Nativity Scene

Every year, the nativity scene created by the famous painter Massimo Rao is also rebuilt here in Pornello. The artist, Neapolitan by birth, lived nearby, but passed away a few years ago at a young age.

The largest Christmas tree in the world is in Gubbio

Christmas also includes a Christmas tree. It is set up either inside or outside. And at least there is always one in the main square of a big city. In Italy, the Christmas tree is usually decorated on December 8 when the Italians are free because La Festa della Madonna is celebrated.
In Gubbio, the lights of the largest Christmas tree in the world are lit in the evening before. This Christmas tree stands against the Monte Ingino and is a very special tree, because it consists only of lighting. Every year since 1981 a group of volunteers has been creating this giant Christmas tree with the help of lamps. From a distance, it lies, as it were, on the slopes of the hill. The tree is 750 m high and 450 m wide and consists of 300 lamps for the outline of the tree, 400 colored lamps to color the tree. It has a star with a size of 1000 m2, which in turn consists of 250 lamps. To wire everything you need 7.5 kilometers of cable! The total size of the 'boom' is almost 30 football fields. The volunteers need 1,300 hours every year to re-rig the tree. In 1991 it was included in the Guinness Book of Records.
To be honest, we have not yet been to Gubbio at Christmas time and have therefore not been able to admire him with our own eyes. But I did find a nice video on Youtube

What is eaten in Italy at Christmas

Italians will not be Italians if they do not put a number of fixed dishes on the table for every party that is not deviated from. Each region has its own culinary traditions. And of course I can only speak for the Umbrian tradition because I live there.
Because Umbria is a region that has traditionally depended on its agriculture and livestock, you mainly see simple dishes here. Dishes based on the products that were available. 

At Christmas Eve

Because people eat a lot on Christmas Day, you see that people keep it simple on Christmas Eve. In the past, people even fasted all day and only after midnight mass did they eat a light meal. Now you see a real cena (evening meal) with a primo (pasta dish), secondo (meat or fish dish) and dolce (dessert), but it has remained simple:

  • Primo: Maccheroni dolci con noci, eggless tagliatelle in layers seasoned with sugar or honey, breadcrumbs, chopped walnuts, lemon zest, cinnamon, alchermes (liqueur) and usually cocoa
  • Secondo: Baccalà, dried cod. After all, Umbria does not border the sea, so the fish that Umbrians traditionally eat is either long-life fish or freshwater fish. They usually prepare the stockfish in the oven with a simple tomato sauce to which raisins and dried plums have been added to mask any salty taste of the stockfish.
  • Dolce: Torciglione, a kind of banquet bar in the shape of a snake or Panpepato, a round sweet cake with walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds, chocolate, honey, raisins, cinnamon, nutmeg, pepper and boiled must.

With Christmas

Only Christmas Day is celebrated here, Boxing Day is called Santo Stefano here and then everyone goes outside and to friends. You celebrate Christmas Day and Christmas Eve with family in Italy and on Christmas Day the Italians really go wild when it comes to food. We really don't understand where they all go. Really, people eat all day long. The preparations for all this food therefore start weeks in advance. Sweets are baked far in advance, such as the panettone and the pandoro, about which more later. The whole family is also called in to prepare the cappelletti. But what is the standard Christmas menu in this part of Umbria. I say this part of Umbria on purpose, because not only are the traditions regional, but within a region there are of course also different traditions. And these traditions are often linked to the availability of the products used.
A traditional Christmas meal in our part of Umbria looks like this:

  • Antipasto: Crostini with olive pate, say tapenade. And crostini with chicken liver pâté in advance.
  • Primo: Cappelletti al brodo, a kind of tortellini filled with the meat of pigeon or capon in a broth of the meat filling. And usually a second pasta is served afterwards, which here is often pappardelle alla lepre or cinghiale, a very broad kind of tagliatelle with a game sauce of hare or wild boar.
  • Secondo: The meat dish here is usually a game dish such as pheasant or goose followed by salsicce in umido con lenticchie, sauce ice cream with lentils from Castelluccio usually prepared as a kind of soup
  • Dolce: panettone or pandoro

Panettone or Pandoro

At the beginning of November you can already see them in our supermarket in Umbria in all sizes and designs: the panettone and the pandoro. Two types of traditional Italian cakes that the Italians (but so do we!) Eat at Christmas.
In recent years you can also buy this typical Italian 'dolce' in the Netherlands. But what is it anyway? And where does this tradition come from?

Christmas in Italy, we buy panettone or pandoro



A panettone is a round high cake, traditionally filled with raisins or candied fruits. The origin of the panettone is in Milan. And there are two versions about the origin of this delicacy.
The first one tells of a certain Toni, servant to Duke Ludovico il Moro in Milan. To save the Christmas lunch, he replaced the burnt dessert of the cook with a sweet bread with dried fruit. His recipe quickly became very popular and quickly spread under the name 'Pan del Toni' and that became 'panettone'.

The other story claims that Toni was a baker who didn't have enough customers. Now it wanted him to have a beautiful daughter who was in love with a Ughetto Atellani. However, they could not get married due to the financial problems of father Toni. Ughetto then pretended to be a baker's assistant and made a sweet bread with raisins and candied fruits. The bread, 'Pan del Toni' became a huge hit and saved the company from father Toni. The lovers could get married!
In any case, the panettone from Lombardy throughout Italy has become the typical Christmas treat.


A lot of pandoro is eaten at Christmas in Italy

The word 'oro' means 'gold' and is really nothing else than adding egg to the dough which makes the cake yellower in color. However, there is a more colorful explanation for the name. Venice was enormously rich in the Renaissance. And at that time it was not strange when the desserts were served with a gold leaf topping.
But it is more obvious that the pandoro is a descendant of the famous Christmas cake 'nadalin'. A simple high cake that was prepared for Christmas by every Verona resident. The production of the pandoro has traditionally come from Verona.

What is the difference

The panettone has a round shape, a thick crust and is served with powdered sugar.
The pandoro, on the other hand, has the shape of a star, is soft and always covered with a thick layer of powdered sugar.
The preparation is also very different. The traditional panettone recipe contains raisins or candied fruits. On the other hand, only vanilla is used in the pandoro.

Panettone recipe

This recipe for panettone is one of the simplest versions. The 'real' panettone is made with sourdough, a so-called 'mother dough', but it is perfectly possible to use normal yeast.

  • 50 g of citron
  • 1.25 dl of warm milk
  • 50 g of butter
  • 50 g white caster sugar
  • 25 g of fresh yeast
  • 350 g of flour
  • 3 egg yolks
  • a pinch of salt
  • 75 g raisins
  • the grater of 1 lemon and 75 g of melted butter

Chop the candied peel as fine as possible.
Heat the milk to just below boiling point, add the butter, 1 teaspoon of sugar and the yeast and stir until smooth.
Leave the yeast mixture in a warm place until it starts to get frothy.
In the meantime, sieve half of the flour into a bowl, add the egg yolks, the rest of the sugar and the salt and beat everything smooth.
Knead in the rest of the flour, the yeast mixture, the raisins, the citron and the lemon zest and knead into a smooth dough. Knead the dough for at least 5 minutes and then leave it in a warm place in the covered bowl.
The dough should rise enough to double its size.
Knead the dough well, put it in a buttered, round cake pan and let it rise again.
Brush the top with melted butter and bake the panettone for 10 minutes in a preheated oven (200 C).
Brush the top again and bake the cake at 170 C for 40 minutes until the top is golden brown and crispy.
Let the panettone cool on a wire rack and cut it into wedges.

Please let us know if your home-made panettone was tasty?
Buon Natale !!!!


  1. We do not need to use a prescription. He's ready.
    Love. Jan and Ger

  2. Looks very nice, I haven't seen them in Deventer yet, is snooping around.

  3. Will make it sometime, Ivan likes it

  4. Monique barger

    Nice story Rose. That way I learn something again. I don't make it because I have my hands full with Christmas cookies. That is tradition here in northern Italy. Also nice

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