12 Popular Italian & Italian-American Holiday Traditions to Start

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Just about every culture in the world has its holiday traditions. Italian culture is no exception. Both native Italians and Italian-Americans often mark major holidays by participating in ceremonies, celebrations, and rituals their families have passed down for generations.

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As with all cultures, Italians often place a lot of importance on these traditions. Through holiday traditions, they may practice their religion, remember a family member, or simply reconnect with their loved ones.

If you have any Italian heritage, you might want to honor it by practicing some Italian holiday traditions with your own family. The following are a few noteworthy examples. Keep them in mind if you’re thinking about adding a little more Italian culture to your holiday celebrations!

Italian Winter Holiday Traditions

Many Italians are Catholic. Thus, winter holidays such as Christmas are important to them. Their holiday rituals often reflect this. While these are by no means the only common Italian winter holiday traditions, they are some of the more significant:

1. Feast of the Seven Fishes

The Feast of the Seven Fishes, a Christmas Eve tradition for many Italians and Italian-Americans, is exactly what it sounds like: a meal (or a series of meals) featuring seven different types of fish (or any other type of seafood).

Traditionally, the person cooking the meal will try to prepare the dishes in different ways. One might be fried. One might be a seafood and pasta combo. One might be a basic appetizer. Naturally, this gives Italian cooks a perfect opportunity to show off their skills and creativity in the kitchen!

Italians choose the number seven because they associate it with the seven sacraments. Again, Catholicism and Italian holiday traditions are often intertwined.

Additionally, fish became a popular choice because (according to some) the Feast of the Seven Fishes first began among families that lived near the sea. Their immediate access to an abundant supply of seafood made it an ideal choice.

On top of that, because Jesus performed the miracle of the loaves and the fishes, deciding to eat fish on Christmas Eve is another way some Italians recognize their Catholic beliefs.

2. Lancio dei Cocci

It’s important to understand that not all Italians and Italian-Americans practice these traditions, and not all of them have remained as popular as others. However, this particular tradition is worth touching on, even if it’s more common in smaller Italian villages these days.

The lancio dei cocci is a New Year’s tradition in which Italians toss old dishware out the window as soon as the clock strikes midnight. It may sound strange, but it’s a symbolic gesture. They’re saying goodbye to the old negative feelings and experiences of the last year and welcoming the new one. 

Of course, tossing out valuable belongings may not sound like the ideal way to get rid of stress when you consider the cost of replacing them. That’s why some Italians who still practice this tradition modify it by simply banging on walls or shutting cabinets loudly.

At this point, the sound that echoes through Italian villages where lancio dei cocci remains popular is more important than the actual act itself. 

3. Tombola

Playing tombola is another essential New Year’s tradition for some Italians. The lottery-style game, which resembles bingo, first came to be when Charles, the Bourbon King of Naples, needed a way to get around the Church’s restrictions on gambling during the Christmas season. He invented the game as something people could play in private.

Although many who follow this tradition make a point of playing the game on New Year’s Eve, it’s still popular in the weeks and days before and after Christmas.

4. Zampognari

No one ever accused Italians of not knowing how to celebrate. During the Christmas season, for instance, they often make sure music plays a big role in their traditions. Zampognari show up in many Italian towns and cities, filling the streets with the sounds of bagpipes.

This tradition started when shepherds from remote villages would travel to the major population centers to earn a little extra money as entertainers in the weeks leading up to Christmas.

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Italian Spring or Easter Traditions

Holiday traditions continue throughout the year in Italy. After all, another major Catholic holiday, Easter, takes place in spring. Italians and Italian-Americans often celebrate the season in these key ways:

5. The Feast of St. Joseph

For many Italians (and particularly Italian-Americans), the Saturday closest to March 19 is one of the biggest days of the year.

That’s when they take to the streets in the Italian-American sections of major cities to hold parades and celebrations in honor of St. Joseph. Those who participate or simply watch often describe the celebrations as the Italian equivalent of St. Patrick’s Day.

6. Pasquetta

Easter Sunday doesn’t mark the end of Easter celebrations in Italy. On Easter Monday, many families get together for pasquetta.

This is essentially a family reunion in which they all enjoy a meal of cheese, red wine, and other delicious items. In many cases, they gather in a local park, taking the opportunity to appreciate the spring weather.

7. Colomba di Pasqua

As you might have guessed, food often plays a pretty big role in many Italian holiday traditions. Consider the example of Colomba di Pasqua.

Many Italian families bake this dish at Easter. It’s a cake they traditionally bake in the shape of a dove, representing the Holy Spirit.

8. Easter Mass

It’s worth noting that you may not be able to directly participate in every tradition on this list. For instance, if you can’t make it to Rome on Easter Sunday, you won’t be able to see the Pope deliver his Easter Mass in person. That said, you can watch the Mass via TV or live stream, remotely joining the many Italians who celebrate the holiday this way.

The Pope’s Easter Mass attracts thousands of attendees each year. Due to its location, many of them are Italian. Those who can’t make the trip to Vatican City will often watch a broadcast of the Mass or attend a special Easter Mass at their local church.

Italian Holiday Traditions for Kids

Do you have kids in your family? If so, you may want to pass down some Italian traditions to them. These are a few examples worth considering:

9. Dressing as shepherds

Catholicism often influences Italian holiday traditions. For example, on December 23, some children in Italy will dress as shepherds, representing the shepherds present at the first Christmas.

In some cases, children will dress as Mary or Joseph instead. They might also visit neighboring homes to sing carols.

10. Gifts after All Saints' Day

All Saints' Day is another popular holiday in Italy. In fact, on the day after All Saints' Day, some Italian families leave gifts for their children, like they would on Christmas.

That said, they don’t claim a jolly bearded man from the North Pole left these presents. They say the souls of the dead left the gifts. This reflects the Catholic values many Italians hold dear.

11. La Befana

In Italy, Santa Claus isn’t the only one who visits kids during the Christmas season. La Befana, who many (though not all) describe as a witch, also shows up on the night before the January 6 Feast of the Epiphany, leaving toys for good children and coal for troublemakers.

Traditionally, Italians say La Befana is a woman whose home pilgrims stayed in on their way to see Jesus. They invited her to come along, but she refused before changing her mind, missing her chance. Now she visits children on the night she would have visited Christ.

That’s the most popular version of the story. Others describe La Befana as a more sinister character, such as a witch who travels the country in search of her lost child. 

12. La Festa di Santa Lucia

It’s fair to say Italian holiday traditions definitely benefit the kids of Italy. Many already receive gifts for Christmas, All Saints Day, and the Feast of the Epiphany. On top of that, some Italian families also give gifts from St. Lucia on December 13, La Festa di Santa Lucia.

Because the special day falls so close to Christmas, for Italian families who celebrate it, this holiday allows them to get into the spirit of the season a little earlier than others. Even those who don’t leave gifts will usually cook a special meal, and may attend one of the many parades Italian towns and cities hold in honor of St. Lucia.

Why Holiday Traditions Matter

Holiday traditions play an important role in our lives. This is true regardless of your culture. Holiday traditions can help us connect with our extended family.

They can help us maintain a sense of normalcy when celebrating our first holiday without a loved one. Perhaps most importantly, they remind us that we belong to a community. That’s an encouraging feeling, whether you’re Italian or not.


Sources

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  2. “Italian New Year’s Customs.” The Italian Tribune, Italian Tribune, 28 December 2017, www.italiantribune.com/italian-new-years-customs/
  3. Jankowski, Nicole. “Move Over, St. Patrick: St. Joseph's Feast Is When Italians Parade.” NPR, NPR, 18 March 2017, www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2017/03/18/519987433/move-over-st-patrick-st-josephs-feast-is-when-italians-parade
  4. Kelly, Tracey. “The Culture and Recipes of Italy.” The Rosen Publishing Group Inc., 2017, Print.
  5. “La Festa di Santa Lucia. Celebrate Saint Lucy with Delicious Meals!” I-italy, RIPRODUZIONE VIETATA, 9 December 2017, www.iitaly.org/magazine/dining-in-out/eataly-magazine/article/la-festa-di-santa-lucia-celebrate-saint-lucy 
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  7. Lillie, Barry. “Zampognari Keep Alive the Tradition of Festive Bagpipe Playing.” Italy Magazine, InterRail, LLC, 23 December 2013, www.italymagazine.com/news/zampognari-keep-alive-tradition-festive-bagpipe-playing 
  8. Manning, Jack. “Christmas in Italy.” Capstone Press, 2014, Print.
  9. Pullella, Philip. “Pope leads Catholics into Easter with vigil Mass.” Reuters, Reuters, 20 April 2019, www.reuters.com/article/us-religion-easter-pope-vigil/pope-leads-catholics-into-easter-with-vigil-mass-idUSKCN1RW0M6 
  10. Thornley, Robin. “Things to Do on Pasquetta in Rome.” USA Today, USAToday, traveltips.usatoday.com/things-pasquetta-rome-10374.html
  11. Woodruff, Betsy. “Forget Santa. You Should Celebrate La Befana.” Slate, The Slate Group, 22 December 2014, slate.com/human-interest/2014/12/celebrate-la-befana-at-christmas-the-holidays-need-a-wine-drinking-witch.html 
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