Rich in history, steeped in tradition and delightfully quirky, Italy is not only our favorite travel destination but the place to celebrate as well.
While some Italian holidays are celebrated nationally, many festivities have a regional focus and exalt local legends. An old, unassuming woman who flies on a broom to bring sweet treats to kids’ shoes and stockings. A burning effigy in the city center that says finalmente 2020 and forza 2021. A town battle where people pelt oranges at each other for three days. A festival dedicated to a prized underground fungus. These are just a taste of the rich traditions we celebrate each year in our cara bell’Italia.
Hop on your virtual vespa and come along for a ride through the boot’s most exquisite and extraordinary celebrations. La dolce vita becomes even sweeter when we celebrate all’Italiana.
Natale and La Befana
From the presepe in St. Peter’s Square and twinkling lights adorning streets to Christmas markets in the piazza, Natale is quintessential Italy in its fullness of life and light. One of the most beloved holidays of the year, Italians kick off the Christmas season with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8th, decorating their trees and homes for the season. The joy continues with the Feast of the Seven Fishes on La Vigilia, Christmas Eve, and extends with great anticipation into Christmas Day. Many gather at their local church to celebrate the birth of the child Jesus and await the visit of Babbo Natale who brings gifts to excited, well-behaved children. Like most Italian holidays, Natale brings us around a table for tortellini in brodo or agnolotti and a slice of panettone or pandoro for dessert, followed by a few rounds of Tombola with family.
Salerno prepares to celebrate the Christmas season with its annual Luci d’Artista, a brilliant art installation that completely covers the city center in dazzling lights. Since its inauguration in 2006, thousands of people have flocked annually to see the captivating displays. Because of the continued pandemic advisory, Salerno’s lights—a truly welcomed sign of hope—will be reduced this year and not on full display until Easter.
The Christmas season continues for 12 more days until January 6th, La Festa dell’Epifania and the feast of La Befana. Legend has it that on the night the Wise Men went to seek the Christ child, they asked La Befana, a witch covered in soot with a curved nose and pointed chin, to accompany them. According to tradition, she initially declined the invitation to finish housework but later went in search of Jesus and the Magi.
Because La Befana did not find the baby Jesus, she travels on her broomstick every Eve of Epiphany in search of him, bringing candy to the good children and carbone, candy coal, to the naughty ones. Children leave their largest sock outside their door on January 5th and awake to find it filled with treats the next morning.
New Year’s Eve and Capodanno
As the celebrations of light, food, and family continue, Italians have a unique way of saying goodbye to last year and hello to the new year. December 31st, New Year’s Eve, features large celebrations of fireworks, dancing and feasting – most notably on a dish of lenticchie (lentils) and cotechino (boiled pork). Tradition, or superstition, dictates that this symbolic abundance (“coins” and fatty meat) brings considerable success in the new year if eaten after midnight. Italians also always wear a new pair of red underwear to ring in the new year, a good omen.
Capodanno is even more animated in Emilia-Romagna as Ferrara and Bologna take firework extravaganzas to a new level. In Ferrara, everyone gathers around the Castello Estense for a spectacular show of pyrotechnics, lights, and colors at the stroke of midnight. L’Incendio del Castello, The Castle Fire, is an event not to be missed, for not even the pandemic can cancel it.
And nearby in Bologna, the locals ring in the new year in Piazza Maggiore with the city’s famous Rogo del Vecchione. Commissioned by a local artist, an enormous effigy called il vecchione (the old one) is burned atop a bonfire – a symbolic way to bid farewell to the old year and usher in the new year with gusto. And what a celebration it will be when we finally get to say addio to the global pandemic!
A time for frivolousness and fun before the beginning of the Lenten season, Italy’s Carnevale rivals the most boisterous celebrations in Rio de Janeiro and New Orleans. It begins immediately after the Epiphany and ends on Mercoledì delle Ceneri, Ash Wednesday, when Lent officially starts to usher in 40 days of sacrifice and self-denial.
In Venice, upward of three million visitors gather in the floating city for an extravagant masquerade ball. An extravagant affair, Venice’s full-costumed Carnevale begins with the Festa Veneziana sull’acqua, a water acrobatic show on the Rio di Cannaregio, and continues with the Festa delle Marie. This parade of 12 Venetian girls is a commemoration of the 12 girls chosen annually by the Doge to receive a sumptuous dowry from the townspeople. Il Volo dell’Angelo, the flight of the angel, officially kicks off Carnevale and features the previous year’s Maria vincitrice, winning Maria, flying over Piazza San Marco in ornate Carnevale costuming.
To the west, the beachside town of Viareggio is transformed by the revelry of enormous papier-mâché floats and one million costumed fans flooding the streets. Viareggio’s Carnevale is most (in)famous for its creative floats that parade down the streets, each one unabashed in its blatant caricature of political figures and satire of social life. Provocative and colorful, it is undoubtedly one of Italy’s best attended events.
In Piedmont, the historical Battaglia delle Arance takes center stage in Ivrea. For three days leading up to Martedì Grasso, the town reenacts its 12th-century revolt for independence from tyranny. Nine teams of about 4,000 people battle with oranges against horse-drawn carts of people, symbolizing troops the tyrant sent to restore his power. Allegedly, the townspeople used to hurl beans at one another until the 19th century when Napoleon ordered oranges to be used instead. This is not a time to be gentle, since the expectation is to recreate a full-out orange assault.
Pasqua and Pasquetta
At the end of the Lenten season, the Church celebrates the Resurrection of Jesus with a feast at Pasqua, officially breaking the penitential fast. The week leading up to Easter is La Settimana Santa, Holy Week, and draws large crowds to Vatican City to celebrate with the pope. Throngs of people gather for a week of solemn celebration, including Domenica delle Palme, Palm Sunday processions, Good Friday’s Via Crucis in Rome near the Colosseum, and Sunday at St. Peter’s Basilica for Easter Holy Mass.
The church bells chime loudly at midnight, joyfully announcing Pasqua. As friends and families gather, they feast on lamb, spring vegetables and la Torta Pasqualina, a savory pie stuffed with Swiss chard, ricotta and hard-boiled eggs. The meal concludes with the colomba, a dove-shaped cake topped with sugar and almonds, or a Neapolitan pastiera a rich citrus-scented dessert filled with ricotta and wheat berries. Children of all ages celebrate by unwrapping a giant chocolate egg filled with a surprise inside.
In Florence, thousands gather outside the Duomo of Santa Maria del Fiore after mass for the Scoppio del Carro, the explosion of the cart. A folk tradition that dates back to the 1500s, the ornately decorated cart is pulled by white oxen adorned with flowers. Every year, Florentines use relics of the Holy Sepulcher housed in Santi Apostoli church to ignite the dove-shaped rocket carrying an olive branch. Symbolizing the Holy Spirit and peace, the colombina starts the explosion and, if all goes well, is said to bring a prosperous harvest and life to Florentines.
The joyous holiday continues on Monday with Pasquetta, or “little Easter”, when friends venture into the countryside for a picnic. Though the holiday officially marks the angel’s appearance to the women at the empty tomb of Jesus, a Pasquetta picnic is a celebration of spring delicacies like fava beans and pecorino cheese.
Infiorate di Genzano, Noto, and Spello
Street art is ubiquitous in Italy, though it doesn’t always take the form of graffiti. From May to June, many Italian cities embrace the tradition of floral floor decor with a festival called an Infiorata, meaning “to be adorned with flowers.” Dating as far back as the 17th century, townspeople line the streets and create elaborate flower carpets made of petals and natural products like beans, foliage, or dirt. This tradition began with Benedetto Drei, the lead florist at the Vatican, and became popularized in Rome with renowned Baroque sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini taking it to the streets.
For the town of Genzano, the Infiorata is closely linked with the June feast of Corpus Domini. A small commune in the city of Rome, Genzano’s almost 250-year-old tradition envisions 14 floral paintings extending about 2,000 square meters and incorporating 415,000 of the brightest and most beautiful carnations and botanical pieces. Preparation begins a year in advance and culminates with a Sunday afternoon procession in the streets. The exuberance closes with lo spallamento, literally “the shouldering,” when the children run down the steps of Santa Maria della Cima church and upend the flower carpets.
The Sicilian town of Noto adorns its streets as a salute to spring beginning the third week of May. A newer tradition beginning in 1980, Noto’s Infiorata preserves the region’s ancient baroque history while offering a modern artistic masterpiece that is a magnet for tourism. Every citizen of Noto participates in the two days of decoration and one showcase day on the famed Via Nicolaci – even the town’s prisoners have a designated flower mosaic to adorn.
In the Umbrian town of Spello, the Infiorata also commemorates the feast of Corpus Domini. The people in Spello start about 8:30 p.m. and work all throughout the night to decorate the city streets with floral embellishments for Sunday’s celebration. Since the 1930s, the petal paintings are a heartfelt, glorified tribute that leads the way for the mile-long procession of the Body of Christ throughout Spello. Local artists work to create the most eye-catching designs, as the competition with Genzano is fierce.
La Festa del Redentore
Celebrated on the third Sunday of July, La Festa del Redentore, the Feast of the Redeemer, is one of Venetians’ most cherished traditions. During the wretched plague of the 16th century that killed 50,000 people—about one-third of the population at the time—the senate of La Serenissima commissioned a majestic church to be built, while the Doge urged the citizens to pray. Dedicated to Christ the Redeemer as an ex voto, a hope-filled religious offering, the church was established as an oblation to God to deliver the city from the plague. The Doge chose the island Giudecca in the Venetian lagoon for the basilica, and the plague ended the same year the first stone was placed.
Every year on Saturday evening before the celebration, Venetians gather for about an hour to watch the most intricate eruption of fireworks in the lagoon. Just as the first year, La Serenissima assembles a bridge of boats to lead the way to the Basilica del Redentore for the annual procession of the faithful in thanksgiving for deliverance from the pestilence. The weekend also includes a Regata del Redentore, featuring three boat races on the Giudecca canal that feature competitions between the young and the old.
Piano City Palermo
If you have ever dreamed of listening to a pianist perform on the beach, then look no further than Palermo’s Piano City. A citywide weekend event ripe with musical masterpieces, the Piano City festival brings people together around the piano in unexpected venues. Ostensibly an open air concert, the weekend festival affords the opportunity for Palermo residents and tourists alike to be mesmerized by music with the whole town as its stage.
For three days, 90 hours, and in more than 30 locations, Palermo’s free concerts give indispensable cultural experience of unlimited genres of music overlooking the ocean, under the stars, among people in the piazza, and in elegant palazzi. Only in its fourth iteration, Piano City Palermo continues to transform the traditional sense of a festival and spotlights established and up-and-coming musicians tickling the ivories.
Wine is an integral part of Italian culture, cuisine and lifestyle, so it’s worth timing your visit to your favorite wine regions to celebrate La Vendemmia, the annual wine harvest. Ranging from mid-August to mid-October depending on the region, grape and style of wine, many wineries welcome guests to help pick grapes or toast to the latest vintage. Because most wineries are small, family-run businesses, the experience isn’t for the faint of heart: vines are usually plucked by hand under the hot summer sun, though you’ll surely be rewarded for your efforts with a hearty lunch with the contadino, the farmer.
Many wine festivals take place during this time as well, like the Sagra dell’Uva di Marino and the Chianti Classico wine festival. Enophiles will also want to book ticket to the Merano Wine Festival in South Tyrol and Vins Extrême in the Valle d’Aosta in November.
Alba’s White Truffle Fair
Each fall, the International Alba White Truffle Fair is the ideal place to celebrate one of Italy’s gastronomic delights. Drawing foodies, chefs, and travelers alike, this culinary fair brings Italy, and the world, together to celebrate the prized underground fungus. It’s a sensory experience, cooking demonstration, and gastronomic marketplace all in one.
Truffles are an underground fungus that grow in the deep woods according to no particular rhyme or reason. Historically, wild boars would sniff out the delicacy but truffle hunters prefer to use well-trained dogs to find the rare tubers today. The white truffle harvest season starts in late summer and continues through the fall which means the fair is the perfect complement to the wine harvest season of Piedmont’s beloved Langhe, Roero and Monferrato territories.
This life and, most tenderly, this year are not for the faint of heart. If 2020, a year plagued by coronavirus, heaviness and loss has taught us anything, it is that life is precious and worth celebrating whenever possible. So, in all the small moments and for as long as needed, celebrate we must!
Decorate your street with artistic floral masterpieces with the neighborhood. Light sparklers, throw confetti, or watch fireworks with your quarantine loved ones – or start a ceremonious bonfire to say farewell to 2020. Make a feast of your favorites and bring it to a park for a picnic. Whatever you choose, celebrate all’italiana.
Whatever we face in the year to come, may we walk in wide-eyed anticipation to celebrations big and small—and, one day soon, together again in our beloved Italy.