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Cool Ways to Celebrate Christmas in Italy

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veniceIf you find yourself in Italy for Natale (Christmas) this year or if you’re planning a holiday trip for next year, you’ll surely experience the holiday in a new way. Guest blogger Kathy McCabe, editor of travel newsletter, shares some top holiday experiences in Italy.

The holiday season is one of my favorite times to visit Italy. It is a chance to experience both authentic Italy and authentic Christmas. Christmas commercialism hasn’t hit Italy in the way it has the U.S. and many other Western nations. Age-old traditions, family and food are at the heart of the celebrations.

Nativity in Napoli

PresepiItalians are crazy for crèches or Nativity scenes—presepi in Italian. While they are constructed in various places around the country, Naples is the center of the Italian Nativity world. In fact, the Via San Gregorio Armeno in Naples, a narrow street in the center of the city is where all the action takes place with shops overflowing with Christmas decorations. This is where artisans practice the age-old tradition of crafting Nativity figurines out of terra cotta.

However, just because it is an old tradition doesn’t mean they don’t give it a new twist. Each year, artists make Nativity figurines that represent public figures: last year, Barack Obama, John McCain and French President Nicholas Sarkozy were hot. You can visit the shops on this street any time of year to purchase your very own Italian presepio.

Roman Holiday

Rome ColosseumIf your travels don’t bring you as far south as Naples, there’s plenty of presepi action in Rome this time of year. For more than 30 years, each Christmas season, more than 100 Nativity scenes from around Italy go on display at Sala del Bramante in Rome’s Piazza del Popolo. You can witness the handiwork of Neapolitan artisans with crèches dating back to the 17th century.

You may also want to head over to Rome’s Museo del Presepio. Run by the Italian Association of Friends of the Nativity, which was founded in Rome in 1953 with the mission of keeping alive the tradition of the crib, the museum contains more than 3,000 Nativity figures from all the regions of Italy as well as from many other nations.

Puglia, The Bethlehem of Italy

Church of Santa Croce - Puglia, ItalyMaybe a static Nativity scene just doesn’t cut it for you? Well, in that case, head down to the region of Puglia for a live Nativity display. (There are others in Italy but this one is particularly noteworthy; plus Puglia is a fantastic place to visit!)

Il Presepe Vivente di Tricase takes place each year in Tricase, a town almost at the tip of the Italian heel. About 250 locals work to put on the nativity pageant that has earned the town the name “The Bethlehem of Italy.” It is usually scheduled for December 25, 26, 27 and January 1, 4 and 6.

And, of course, what would Christmas be without marking the birth of Christ at Midnight Mass? For Midnight Mass inside St. Peter’s Basilica, you need to request tickets months in advance. But even without tickets, you can join the crowd in St. Peter’s Square watching the big screen set up to show the Pope giving mass. There’s a life-size Nativity to see as well.

Alternatives to Midnight Mass in Rome include attending services at the Pantheon. You’ll hear Gregorian chants but need to get there early to get seats.

You can also go to Santa Maria in Ara Coeli at the top of Capitoline Hill where the church’s 124 steps are filled with candles on Christmas Eve. During the mass, the church’s venerated statue of Jesus is taken from the private chapel on a ceremonial throne before being unveiled and transported to a crèche.

Midnight Mass in Venice

Gondola parking in VeniceIf you’re in Venice, the most famous church in the city—St. Mark’s Basilica—also hosts Midnight Mass.

But as my friend Nan McElroy of has informed me, doors open at 10:30 p.m. and the mass begins at 11:30 p.m. Nan says, “Do arrive earlier, as it’s heavily attended. As of last year, the entrance is at the front door, not the north door as in earlier years, and dress warmly: the Basilica can be drafty on a winter’s eve.”

Wherever the holidays find you—in Italy of just dreaming of being there—Buon Natale e Felice Anno Nuovo (Merry Christmas and Happy New Year).

By Kathy McCabe for For more information about celebrating the holidays in Italy, download Dream of Italy’s free 35-page Christmas in Italy guide filled with travel tips, Italian holiday traditions and recipes. Dream of Italy is offering a buy-one- subscription, get-an-online subscription-for-free deal. The package includes 10 issues over the coming year (online or by mail), online access to more than 70 back issues and the bonus DVD, Visions of Italy: The Great Cities. Plus you get a free online subscription with DVD ($79 value) to give as a gift.