Carnevale in Venice.
With Christmas just around the corner, I thought it would be the perfect time to write about some traditional Italian holidays and celebrations. But first, can we acknowledge the fact that Christmas is literally 44 days away? Where has this year gone!?
Anyways, back to the holiday spirit. Some of these are common place around the world like Christmas and Easter. But just as America has Thanksgiving and Australia has Australia Day, Italy has some unique celebrations of their own.
La Befana – January 6
Prato della Valle in Padova on La Befana.
The history and various origins of this festive holiday is a combination of pagan folktales and Catholic traditions. Supposedly, an old witch like woman dressed in black visits children around Italy in search of the recently born, baby Jesus and leaves behind sweets for the good children and coal for the bad.
Today, La Befana is celebrated by children hanging stockings or socks out the night before, much like Christmas, and parents filling them with treats and sweets. Or sometimes coal, depending on how good they’ve been 😉
TIP: If you happen to be in the Veneto region on La Befana, you should consider making a trip to Padova. To celebrate the occasion there is a large celebration in Prato della Valle – its biggest square – where a large wooden witch structure is set a light and celebrations ensue for the entire family.
Carnevale – Usually takes place in late January and February
Carnevale is arguably one of Italy’s most famous traditions, however I’m still unsure of the exact origin of the celebration. I’ve lived near Venice for nearly four years and I’ve heard numerous stories. My favourite and what I like to believe is the truth, is that Carnevale was created as a way for Venetian people of all backgrounds and socioeconomic classes to come together and celebrate. The masks and costumes were a way of hiding one’s identity and wealth, so that for one night everyone was equal.
Another version has links back to Catholicism. With Lent being a time of fasting and reflection, people generally refrained from consuming sweets, alcohol, meat and other rich foods. So apparently, Carnevale was created in order to rid everyone’s home of these foods and temptations in preparation for the 40 days of lent. And what better way to do so than throw a huge party?
Now days, Carnevale is celebrated by attending fancy balls and dinners, best costume competitions and various shows across the city including an opening parade along the canals and concerts in San Marco’s Square.
TIP: If you do happen to be in Venice or the Veneto region during Carnevale, make sure to try a “frittello”. It’s basically a ball like donut that comes in various flavours including plain (sugar or icing sugar) and custard or chocolate filled. They are amazing!
Ferragosto – August 15
Escaping to the beach.
Coinciding with the Catholic holiday of the Assumption of Mary, Ferragosto has less to do with Mary and more to do with enjoying the summer. August 15 generally marks the day that Italians start their summer holidays. It is a national holiday, so everything is closed on the day and you’ll most likely see a lot of closed shops and restaurants with the sign “chiuso per ferie” for the next couple of weeks.
When we first moved to Padova, it was a hot mid August day and honestly my first impressions were not great. It looked like a complete ghost town, not a single person in sight and a lot of closed shops and cafes. But after a few weeks, things started to pick up again. Generally, city dwelling Italians flock to either the mountains or the beach which is why Padova was so dead.
TIP: If you’re planning on travelling to Italy over the summer, you may want to avoid the last two weeks of August as on top of the millions of tourists, most of Italy will also be holidaying with you.
Pasqua and Pasquetta
Also known as Easter and Easter Monday and given it’s an international holiday I’m sure it needs no explanation. Easter is a big holiday in Italy, maybe almost as big as Christmas. Due to it being a long weekend, Italians typically escape to the mountains or the sea.
However, unlike Christmas, most things remain open on Easter Sunday, including museums and all major sites. Although, it is more common for things to be closed on Easter Monday particularly restaurants and cafes.
TIP: Usually, Easter Sunday is celebrated with family over a large, delicious lunch. While Easter Monday is celebrated among friends, either coming together for a BBQ or a picnic. So if you happen to be in Italy on Easter Monday, do as the locals do and find a nice spot for a picnic.
Christmas in Piazza delle Erbe, Verona.
Or more commonly known as Christmas. This festive holiday hardly needs an introduction or an explanation but what kind of celebration list would it be if Christmas wasn’t included.
Aside from the cold, and at times the fog, Christmas is one of my favourite times in Italy because it’s so incredibly different to the Christmas’ I grew up with in sunny, hot Sydney. The entire country transforms into a scene out of a movie with decorations, fairy lights and Christmas markets everywhere!
TIP: If you lucky enough to celebrate Christmas in Italy, be sure to get your butt to a Christmas market. Most towns, regardless of how big or small, will have some form of Christmas markets and celebrations in their main squares. They start popping up late November and usually end early January, typically coinciding with La Befana.