SHARE
COPY LINK
For members

ITALIAN LANGUAGE

Ten words you need to know for an Italian Christmas

If you plan on ever celebrating the winter holidays in Italy, you'll want to familiarise yourself with this Italian Christmas vocabulary.

Christmas tree
An albero di Natale (Christmas tree) Photo by Tessa Rampersad on Unsplash

Starting on December 8th and not finishing until January 6th, Christmas is a big deal in Italy, and there’s a whole festive lexicon that goes with it.

Here are some words you’ll want to learn in order to celebrate Christmas (and New Year’s) like an Italian.

Natale

Let’s start with the obvious – you can’t have an Italian Christmas without knowing the word for Christmas itself: Natale. It comes, as you might guess, from the Latin word for ‘born’, in reference to the birth of Jesus.

With Natale come a number of related words you should know. There’s Babbo Natale, Father Christmas; l’albero di Natale, a Christmas tree; cena di Natale, Christmas dinner; biglietti di Natale, Christmas cards; luci di Natale, Christmas lights; and la messa di Natale, Christmas mass.

When used as an adjective, natale becomes natalizio/ia/i/ie; so addobbi natalizi are Christmas ornaments.

A Christmas tree with baubles in Verona. Photo: AFP
A Christmas tree with baubles in Verona. Photo: AFP

READ ALSO: Six quirky Italian Christmas traditions you should know about

Neve

If you’re in northern Italy this Christmas (or even some more mountainous parts of the centre-south), you may be lucky enough to experience neve, or snow.

Like ‘snow’, neve is an uncountable noun, meaning it doesn’t have a singular form in its own right. A fiocco di neve is a snowflake, and a pupazzo di neve is a snowman (literally, a snow doll).

To snow is nevicare, and if you’re dreaming of a white Christmas, that’s a direct translation into Italian: it’s a bianco Natale (or Natale bianco) you’re hoping for.

Slitta

Babbo Natale could never make it through all that neve without suitable transport options – he’ll need his trusty sleigh, or slitta.

And if your dream of waking up to a Natale bianco comes true and you want to imitate Santa on your own toboggan or sledge, you’ll be climbing into a slittino.

reindeer pulling sled
Santa couldn’t get anywhere without his slitta. Photo by Norman Tsui on Unsplash

As you might be able to infer from these nouns, the verb slittare means to slide or slip. While this is very much a physical action engaged in by tobogganers, it can also be used figuratively – you’ll often see it crop up in Italian news headlines, referencing things like political deadlines being pushed (‘sliding’) back.

Presepio

A presepio or presepe (two variations on the original Latin that mean the same thing) is a nativity scene – and few countries put as much effort into their presepi as Italy does.

Whether they’re floating on water, formed of 15,000 lights sprawling across a hillside, or being performed by live actors (a presepe vivente), come advent you’ll find a nativity scene to impress in almost every Italian town and city.

READ ALSO: Ten Christmas nativity scenes you’ll only see in Italy

Pope Francis in front of a classic nativity scene in St Peter’s Square at the Vatican in 2013.
Pope Francis in front of a classic nativity scene in St Peter’s Square at the Vatican in 2013. Photo: Filippo MONTEFORTE/AFP

Avanzi

Most households that celebrate Christmas around the world can expect to have substantial leftovers come Boxing Day from their Christmas cenone (‘big dinner’), and Italians are no exception.

Leftovers in Italian are avanzi. Your avanzi di Natale may well include lasagne, tortellini, and meats ranging from ox to veal to (possibly, but with no guarantees) roast turkey or chicken.

With any luck, you’ll also find some dolci di Natale ­– Christmas sweets or desserts, which typically include panettone or pandoro brioche-based cakes – in the pile of leftovers.

READ ALSO: The food and drink you need for an Italian Christmas feast

You can expect to see a panettone grace most tables in Italy on Christmas.
You can expect to see a panettone grace most tables in Italy on Christmas. Photo: Giuseppe Cacace/AFP

Vigilia

Everyone knows that Christmas has already effectively started by Christmas Eve (in fact in Italy it starts several weeks earlier on December 8th with il giorno dell’Immacolata Concezione or l’Immacolata, a Catholic holiday that celebrates the immaculate conception of Mary).

A vigilia is the day or night before any given day of the year, so the Vigilia di Natale is of course the night before Christmas, i.e. Christmas Eve.

In many parts of the country, it’s traditional to celebrate the Vigilia di Natale with the Festa dei sette pesci, or ‘Feast of the seven fishes’.

At least seven courses of seafood are typically served, with clams and oysters often making an appearance, as they’re seen as luxury items.

Oysters are sometimes served on Christmas Eve as a luxury item.
Oysters are sometimes served on Christmas Eve. Photo: Liza Pooor on Unsplash

San Silvestro

In most other countries, New Year’s Eve is just New Year’s Eve, but in Italy it’s yet another saint’s day: that of San Silvestro, a pope about whom little is known beyond that fact that he died on December 31st.

Italians celebrate San Silvestro in much the same way as everyone else around the world: with New Year’s Eve parties (veglioni di Capodanno), fireworks (fuochi d’artificio), counting down to midnight (fare il conto alla rovescia) and toasts (brindisi) when it arrives.

More local traditions include eating lentils, playing tombola (a kind of bingo), giving and wearing red underwear for luck, and chucking your junk out the window in preparation for new beginnings.

READ ALSO: Here’s why Italians eat lentils on New Year’s Eve

fireworks

Like most places, Italy typically celebrates New Year’s Eve with plenty of firework displays. Photo by Elisha Terada on Unsplash

Capodanno

After dancing the night away for San Silvestro, it’s time to get your resolutions in order as you wake up to capodanno – literally, the ‘head of the year’.

As in most countries, In Italy this is a public holiday, giving those suffering from the previous night’s festivities a chance to recuperate.

For the hardier amongst us, it’s an opportunity to participate in local new year customs like jumping in the River Tiber, an annual Roman tradition that dates back to 1946.

READ ALSO: Italian word of the day: ‘Capodanno’

Epifania

If Christmas in Italy starts several weeks earlier than it does anywhere else, it also finishes later: specifically on January 6th, with Epifania, or Epiphany.

That’s when the three wise men finally complete their journey and make it to the stable to find baby Jesus in his crib.

Three wise men tree ornament

Epiphany is when the three wise men find Jesus in the stable. Photo by Robert Thiemann on Unsplash

It used to be the day on which Italian children would receive their Christmas presents; these days that tends to happen on December 24th or 25th, as in the US and UK.

Nonetheless, it’s a public holiday, so children and parents alike still receive the gift of closed school and a day off work.

Befana

In many parts of the world Babbo Natale gets all the glory, but not in Italy.

Here the Christmas witch La Befana hops on her broomstick to distribute presents to boys and girls on the vigilia dell’Epifania, or the eve of Epiphany.

Legend holds that the Three Wise Men came to her house and invited her to join their search for Christ. She was too busy with housework so declined, but later changed her mind, and to this day is still searching for the child, leaving presents for any good children she comes across.

Three women dress up as La Befana.
Three women dress up as La Befana. Photo: Eleonora Gianinetto/Wiki Commons.

Member comments

  1. Nice article! This is gonna be our third Christmas in Italy and I’m looking forward to it. One question: is the feast of the seven fish really an Italian tradition? Some years ago I heard about it for the first time and I wanted to know more (eventhough I am a vegetarian). Then I found this article (in Italian) where they state that this tradition has been invented outside Italy (probably the USA): https://www.rivistastudio.com/festa-dei-sette-pesci/

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members

ITALIAN LANGUAGE

Ten of the best podcasts for learners of Italian

Listening to podcasts is a great way to immerse yourself in a new language. For everyone from beginners to advanced learners, here's a list of audio shows that will help improve your Italian.

Ten of the best podcasts for learners of Italian

For beginners to intermediate learners:

In 2022, there’s a vast range of podcasts for people wanting to learn Italian from scratch – here we’ve selected just a few.

Since beginners will often struggle to understand even slow Italian, all these podcasts come with a paid subscription tier that provides access to transcripts and other accompanying materials.

That said, you don’t need to pay anything to simply listen to any of these shows. Give them a try, and see what you can pick up for free.

Coffee Break Italian

The creators of this show are on to a winning format: stop native speakers of a language in the street to ask them questions on a given theme; slowly repeat their answers and translate them into English; replay the interviews so the listener can fill in the gaps they missed the first time around.

It’s a simple but highly effective technique, allowing learners to acquaint themselves with the language as spoken by real Italians while giving them the tools they need to extract meaning from strong accents and colloquial turns of phrase.

News in Slow Italian

This podcast does exactly as advertised: gives you the week’s major international news in a (very) slow Italian.

READ ALSO: Ten of the best TV shows and films to help you learn Italian

It’s good for keeping up with current events as well as learning the language. One particularly useful function of the paid tier is that it allows you to hover over certain phrases in the transcript and see the English translation.

Italiano Automatico

Alberto Arrighini has taken his highly popular Youtube channel, Impara l’Italiano con Italiano Automatico, and made each episode available to listen to via the Italiano Automatico podcast.

While those who opt to listen via the podcast will miss out on the captions and slides Arrighini provides in his Youtube videos, it’s ideal for busy listeners who want to learn on the go. 

Each episode is roughly 10 minutes long and tackles different aspects of Italian such as regional accents, conjunctions, and answers to questions like when to use essere vs stare.

Which podcasts can help you learn Italian?

Which podcasts can help you learn Italian? Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash.

Quattro Stagioni

This bite-sized podcast from Alessandra Pasqui takes the form of five-minute long episodes covering everything from recipes to travel diaries from Italian cities to biographies of famous Italians.

The programme’s short length makes it perfect listening for walks to the shops or when waiting in line at the post office.

Simple Italian

Simone Pols hosts this programme for intermediate Italian speakers. It’s another basic set up: Pols takes as his starting point a theme or a recent experience and spends around 20 minutes taking about it in slowed-down Italian.

READ ALSO: Seven songs that will help you learn Italian

Recent episodes including his musings on include why it’s important to say no, the definition of beauty, and what he learned from spending six weeks in Palermo.

For advanced learners: 

These podcasts were made for native Italian speakers, but you don’t need to be one yourself to enjoy them.

Practically non-existent until just a few years ago, the Italian podcasting industry has flourished in recent years. Whether you’re into true crime, long-form narrative journalism or science, these days there’s something for everyone.

Here are just a few well-known Italian podcasts for advanced speakers wondering where to start.

Veleno

This 2017 podcast is often referred to as ‘Italy’s Serial’, both for its in-depth investigative journalism and the fact that it’s credited with introducing large swathes of the population to the concept of podcasts altogether.

The story centres around a Satanic Panic that gripped the Bassa Modenese territory in the late 1990’s, leaving huge destruction and grief in its wake.

READ ALSO: The top five free smartphone apps for learning Italian

It’s an impressive piece of longform narrative journalism that makes for uncomfortable listening in some parts and will make you burn with righteous indignation in others.

Radiografia Nera

The Radio Popolare news station didn’t exist before 1976: but what if it had? 

That’s the starting point for this podcast from Tommaso Bertelli e Matteo Liuzzi, who in each episode recount a different crime that took place in post-war Milan up until the year the station was founded, sourcing most of their facts from archived court documents and police reports.

You’ll hear plenty of stories about bank robberies and stick-up jobs, but also learn of broader historical crimes such as attempted coups.

The hosts have a rapid-fire style of delivery, so Italian learners may want to slow the podcast down or go back and listen more than once to fully grasp the whole story – but it’s good practice if you want to challenge yourself.

XXX. Photo by Siddharth Bhogra on Unsplash.

Limoni

L’Internazionale‘s Annalisa Camilli has won awards for her in-depth reporting on migration to Italy, but there’s one story from her past that she always kept at arm’s length – until now.

In Limoni, which was released to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the G8 protests in Genoa, Camilli looks back at what happened at the 2001 event in which hundreds of protestors were injured and over forty unarmed people were set upon and tortured by police as they prepared to go to bed.

Camilli, who attended the protests as a young person, examines the events in light of information that has come out in the years since, bringing a new clarity to what happened and why things went so badly wrong.

Il gorilla ce l’ha piccolo

Despite its irreverent name (which translates roughly as ‘Gorillas have small d**ks’), this animal-focused podcast contains a genuine treasure trove of information about the animal kingdom.

Presented by the biologist Vincenzo Venuto, each episode takes a broad relational theme, such as families or cheating, and examines how these things play out among various animal species. In looking at how animals handle aspects of sex, birth, ageing, death and grief, Venuto gives us a greater insight into our own species.

Problemi

From Jonathan Zenti, creator of the excellent (sadly only three-episode-long) English language podcast Meat, comes Problemi. In each episode Zenti talks about something he has a problem with, helped along by interjections from one of his own voice-altered alter egos.

In other hands, this might sound like a relatively dull basis for a podcast, but not in these ones. Zenti’s persona as a host is prickly and impious, but equally capable of deep compassion. His lack of interest in self-censorship and sometimes uncomfortably frank disclosures can make this mostly humorous show surprisingly painful at certain moments. It’s one of the few I’ll sometimes return to.

Do you have any recommendations for an Italian podcast we haven’t mentioned here? If so, please email us with your suggestion.

SHOW COMMENTS