Type to search

Natale with a twist


Local customs take root in areas not formally part of Italy.

Christmas in Italy is a magical time and the traditions in each of the regions are often incorporated into the celebrations of millions of Italians who now live across the globe. While each region of Italy observes universal religious customs, Italians often infuse more localized practices into their holiday routine.

Locarno on Ice is a crowd-pleaser during the Christmas holidays in Ticino, Switzerland.

This is also the case for several Italian-speaking areas, which are not “officially” part of Italy. There are several areas which are geographically tied to Italy where the residents are not technically Italian citizens.

The conventional rites of Christmas at the Vatican are well known around the world among Roman Catholics. There are about 450 people within the walls and around 800 in total who are citizens. Citizenship is not granted to this city state by birth, but by employment status.

Revelers celebrate the new year at La Tavolata in Ascona, Switzerland.

Christmas in Italian-speaking Switzerland combines both time-honored customs with celebrations that reflect the culture and geography of the population.

In Switzerland, there are two cantons (districts) in which Italian is an official language. One is the canton of Ticino and the other is Grigioni.

Ticino is the closest to Italy with a narrow land border and flanked by two lakes, Maggiore, and Como. The largest group in this zone are people with Italian heritage followed by Croatians and Portuguese. Italian is the official language spoken by 83 percent of the population but residents are Swiss citizens.

In the town of Locarno, situated on Lake Maggiore in Switzerland, the waters along the lakefront promenade reflect the Christmas decorations. Homes and streets also shine with lights and bright ornaments and the fragrance of mulled wine, hot chestnuts and gingerbread spices entices residents and visitors alike. It’s a season for reflection – but also for activity: many traditions come alive there at this time of year. There is a cozy ambiance, smiling faces, excited children, and the scents of Christmas.

The climate tends to be milder in this part of Switzerland at this time of year so you can often ski in the morning and then relax on a sundeck by the lake in the afternoon with coffee. At night when the sun goes down, residents and visitors enjoy a fairytale world in Piazza Grande where one can ice skate at Locarno on Ice. Penguins and pandas show off their skating prowess in the center of town, while everyone from toddlers to grandparents glides along or spins to his or her heart’s content. As the night darkens, Piazza Grande begins to sparkle and turns into a winter wonderland. People gather not only to skate but to enjoy a warming drink or two, accom-panied by live music. Others stand outside at small bar tables next to the giant Christmas tree and soak in the cheerful ambience. Music fills the air for listening or dancing.

For those who don’t like the colder air there are heated igloo bars with a diverse drink menu – from punch to mulled wine, and locally produced beer to the legendary gazzoso as well as regional wines. There is an abundant selection for dining: pizza, savory tarts, crêpes, fritto misto and pizzocheri, a type of short tagliatelle, a flat ribbon pasta, made with 80 percent buckwheat flour and 20 percent wheat flour. Residents and visitors wander from chalet to chalet to check out a variety of food, drinks, and handmade wares.

Not far away is the town of Ascona. Each year they celebrate Advent with a variety of events: including a Christmas market and a Christmas run. To ring in the New Year, they host a New Year’s concert, a firework display and the Tavolata di Ascona, where large groups of tables are set up so people can celebrate the year together.

Presepi, or cribs, are also important in the Ticino culture. The town of Vira, considered one of the jewels of small towns along Lake Maggiore, is well known for its Christmas presepi. The picturesque town, now known as Vira Gambarogno, has an almost intact center of historical houses and porticoes, as well as a labyrinth of narrow passageways. Each Christmas the handcrafted presepi figure ensembles transform the Ticino village into an open-air exhibition of nativity scenes. The decorations and Christmas cribs displayed in the small squares, under the porches and in the entrances and windows of the typical houses create a wonderful festive atmosphere.

Moghegno (Vallemaggia), also in the canton of Ticino is particularly well known for their traditional and unusual interpretations of their presepi. On display are about 30 little handcrafted nativity scenes exhibited in the village center.

The Republic of San Marino, geographically within Italy but a separate country, is the fifth smallest country in the world. The citizens are a mix of native Sammarinese and Italians, and are proud of their historic individualistic culture.

The small republic sits on the slopes of Mount Titano, on the Adriatic side of central Italy. San Marino is a popular tourist destination year round because of tax- free shopping. When Christmas arrives, San Marino becomes even more magical with numerous Christmas markets, iconic sights, and an array of festive traditions.

Tours of the town, with fun and knowledgeable guides are a popular way to learn about the town’s history as one travels through the streets during the country’s most decorative time of the year. Tourists will see some of the city’s most important sights and beautifully decorated locations as the guide tells festive anecdotes and tourists discover facts such as who invented the Christmas tree. At the market, visitors can sample the region’s most renowned festive delicacies or sip on a glass of mulled wine as you soak up San Marino’s charming festive atmosphere.

San Marino’s Christmas of Wonders kicks off on Dec. 21 when the entire historic center turns itself into a Christmas Village. Decorations fill the streets, with music and dancing throughout the area. Santa and his elves walk around all day singing and playing music. Musicians stroll through the street dressed as Sammarinese shepherds and play the traditional zampogna, a bagpipe type instrument brought from ancient Greece to southern Italy.

A skating rink is set up as well as a nearby toboggan run. Children can take a ride in a sleigh driven by an elf and take pictures with Santa and his reindeer at the Wonders Village in Campo Bruno Reffi. The village is also enjoyable for adults with all the lights, Christmas trees with packets underneath, Christmas songs, poinsettias, and the wooden houses with the red and white tents at the windows.

Residents and visitors in all these places can enjoy a different type of Christmas which is heavily influenced by geography and the unique culture of these Italian-speaking areas.

Stay up-to-date with our free email newsletter

Keep a pulse on local food, art, and entertainment content when you join our Italian-American Herald Newsletter.