Here is the second part of my mammoth list about spending a wonderful (and sometimes even white) Christmas in Italy. On Friday I shared with you the first 25 fun facts which make this beautiful country a great destination for an authentic Christmas experience.
For example, I told you why the panettone has a domed shape, who invented the Christmas tradition of caroling and when Italian children receive their Christmas presents (a hint: there are four gift-giving occasions here!). So, if you haven’t read the first half of my list yet, please, make sure to click here.
It is all based on my own experience of living in the Northern Italian region of Veneto for the past 16 months and on being through one and a half Christmas periods here (the current one is still going strong, you see).
Now, let’s explore the second half of my list all the while aiming to make you wish to spend your next festive season in Italy and, in the meantime, to fill you up with Christmas cheer like a cup of thick hot Italian chocolate.
And a very Buon Natale to you!
26. Christmas in Italy is a much less commercial event than in England, for example. There are no endless shopping trips, the radio doesn’t play Christmas songs on loop and the shops, even though they get a bit busier than usual, remain a calm and organised place. Shoppers don’t pull items off the shelves and rails, only to discard them a minute later on the floor. There is no tension and stress in the air, at least, in Vicenza and the other cities and towns of Veneto I have been to in the past month.
27. At 10 am yesterday a gaggle of Santa Clauses in full festive attire ran up and down the streets of Vicenza in the annual ‘Run, Santa Claus, run!’ 2 km charity race. There was Christmas hilarity galore! Such Santa Claus runs are popular all throughout Italy, so make sure that you check the one local to you when you visit.
28. You can combine Christmas festivities with some fabulous shopping at discounted prices. The winter sale in Italy is scheduled to start on 4th January 2016 and you can get your hands on some amazing designer stuff for much less than full price.
29. I was speaking with someone in England the other day and they told me they will be working until late in the afternoon on Christmas Eve and then will return to work straight after Boxing Day (which will be spent shopping at the sales anyway). Italians don’t reduce the Christmas celebrations to a day. Traditionally, businesses close for about two weeks – from the day before Christmas Eve all the way to Epiphany. Obviously, restaurants, hotels and tourist sights remain open, but otherwise it is pretty much time to spend with one’s family and to enjoy the festivities.
31. There is nothing like Italian hot chocolate. It is thick, indulgent and it fills the soul with joy. It is little wonder then that the Italians, especially in the North, traditionally have a hot chocolate and a slice of panettone back home from Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. Plus, every self-respecting Christmas market in Italy has at least one booth serving delicious hot chocolates garnished with a big swirl of proper whipped cream.
32. What in England is known as ‘Boxing Day’ is St. Stephen’s Feast Day in Italy. This is when the families welcome more distant relatives and friends round the table for a festive lunch and to exchange gifts with them.
33. In the run up to Christmas, Italian supermarkets sell walnuts and monkey peanuts in huge containers for people to scoop in plastic bags and buy by the kilo. The nuts are then roasted in their shells at home and cracked open during the leisurely hours between and after Christmas meals when the family gathers together to talk and enjoy the festivities.
34. Every year an International Exhibition of Nativity Scenes is held inside Arena di Verona. More than 400 cribs from all over the world are arranged under the internal arches of the Roman amphitheatre. A light and music show turns the exhibition into a cohesive experience where the individuality of each crib is appropriately highlighted.
35. Italian shops gladly offer to gift wrap for free your purchases. And it is not some half-inspired job with a cheap and thin piece of tissue paper kept together by large badly cut patches of sellotape. Instead, you get the full treatment with suitably patterned paper, raffia bows and gift tags even for the smallest item. If a huge queue piles up behind you whilst you are being served, no-one moans or complains, as everybody expects to be given the same treatment.
36. The cost of the splendid Christmas lights adorning our current hometown of Vicenza this year is 140 thousand euros. Most of this amount is borne by the local council, still 40 thousand euros are contributed by the local shopkeepers. All lights are energy saving. The picture at the start of this list shows the beautiful light decorations we will be enjoying here until the 10th January.
37. Ice skating rinks spring up all over Italy during the Christmas season. So you have a chance to glide on ice in such iconic cities as Florence and Venice. Only yesterday we passed by an ice skating rink on the shores of Lake Garda. There is something to be said about skating with such stunning vistas.
38. The oldest Nativity scene in existence is carved in marble and dates back to the 13th century. His author is Arnolfo di Cambio – a renowned Italian sculptor and architect who has left his mark on the appearance of Florence. The marble Nativity scene he created is currently on display in the museum of the church Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome.
39. Italians call mulled wine ‘vin brule‘. Made with red or white wine, it is a staple drink at any self-respecting Christmas market.
40. The Italian Santa Claus – Babbo Natale – has an excellent taste for location and real estate. Of course, you can see him in grottoes all over the country, but did you know that he has a house in a very picturesque city called Riva del Garda right at the Northern extremity of Italy’s largest lake?! So, if you are thinking that he spends December hard at work at his workshop in Lapland, think again. He is actually relaxing in his lakeside villa where children and adults can visit him.
41. Throughout December Italians organise charity food collections for families in need. Volunteers give shoppers bags in the local supermarkets which they can use to put in food products purchased from the shop and then return to the volunteers. Everyone buys what they can afford and no-one looks into the bag when it is handed back, thus making it a more personal and discreet way to donate.
42. Even though Advent calendars are an imported tradition, nowadays they are very popular in Italy. Shops sell a huge variety and not all have a chocolate or other edible incentive included for each day. Last year we were late a couple of days and the only calendar we could find at that time was with Christian sayings in Italian using the example of Christ to illustrate in a simple language children could understand how to do good deeds. Opening each window and deciphering the Italian phrase became a lovely highlight of each day in the run up to Christmas. This year we got a fancy, train-shaped Advent calendar where each window reveals a picture of a different animal when it is opened.
43. Even though the Nativity scenes in churches, squares and front yards are set-up before Christmas, traditionally the figurine of baby Jesus should not be added to the manger until Christmas Day, when he is after all born. In some Italian families, kids receive a handful of hay for each good deed they do during the month of December to layer the manger with and make it more comfortable for the baby to come.
44. A Christmas tree was erected for the first time in St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican only recently. In 1982 the then serving Pope John Paul II chose to introduce this Northern European symbol of Christmas to the festivities taking place in Rome. The first tree came from Italy, but since then a different European country donates a huge tree every year.
45. Online shopping is starting to play a much bigger role for Christmas shopping in Italy. According to data published by the Italian news agency ANSA only a few days ago, 39.6% of shoppers are buying presents on the Internet this year in comparison with a tiny 3.8% in 2009. In England, for example, at least 90% of people did some or all their festive shopping online according to The Independent newspaper.
46. As for the total amount of money spent on gifts, again according to a survey publicised by ANSA, 95.2% of Italian consumers will not spend more than 300 euros on presents, which seems tiny especially in comparison with the crazy gift shopping which I have witnessed in England, for example. The average spending per head for Christmas in Italy will be only 5% up compared to last year.
47. A survey conducted by the Confcommercio Retailers’ Association established that foodstuffs are the most popular presents in Italy with 74.7% of shoppers spending money on them, followed by clothing (46.2%) and toys (45.4%).
48. According to data by the FIPE Restaurants’ Association Christmas Day lunch in a restaurant in Italy costs on average 50 euros for a set menu with seven dishes. About 12% of all Italians will choose this option due to lack of time to prepare Christmas lunch at home and to enjoy a stress-free celebration. FIPE has forecast an overall expense of 308 million euros. 84.5% of all Italians will celebrate at home.
49. Food allergies and the aspiration to eat clean have led to traditional Italian Christmas recipes being adapted so that everyone can enjoy the festive food. So, torrone (see point 10 in the first part of this list) is now being made for the first time without eggs and gluten-free, dairy-free and even candied-fruit-free panettone is now being sold, too.
50. The colours of the Italian flag are actually the colours of Christmas – green, white and red!
So, here you have it! The second part of my mammoth list ’50 Christmas Facts About Italy’. Its first portion is at this link, so have a look, if you haven’t already.
In the meantime, let me know if you want to add anything to this list, based on your own experience of Christmas celebrations in Italy.
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