Italy, the land of pizza, wine, many hand gestures and many holidays. As you may have guessed from the title, this post is covering the holidays in Italy and why you should care.
Italy is a predominantly Catholic country and home to Papa, or the pope. Well, technically the Vatican which is in and of itself a country is home to the Papa, but the Vatican is in Italy, so, same thing. There are many holidays celebrated in Italy to commemorate different saints and events in the Bible. Some seem to based more on folklore than actual fact, but they are celebrated with gusto and nonetheless an important part of the culture here.
Whether or not you celebrate them, these holidays will still have an effect upon your life if you travel or live in Italy. If you’ve planned a trip or traveled to Italy, you may have read about or experienced the infamous Ferragosto, the holiday on August 15th where all the Italians escape seaside for vacation. Even though everything closes down like it’s Christmas, the “ferie” or holidays actually start usually towards the end of July and finish the beginning of September. This means having to plan very carefully when you grocery shop, shop, get public transport, go the gym, eat out, go to the doctor, and everything else that includes hours of business. Make sure to tell all your appliances and A/C not to break during August. If they do, and you know that if they do they will during this month, sorry ‘bout ya. The plumber is at the beach. So is the electrician. Also the tabaccheria where you buy bus tickets, your local coffee place, and the doctor who was supposed to perform your surgery. Ah well.
City centers mostly stay open for tourism, but neighborhoods around that don’t get many tourists will almost achieve ghost town status. It’s quite peaceful, actually, until I start missing the pizza from my local pizzeria. Come backkkkk!! I’m hungry!! Ah well, #firstworldproblems.
Another good thing to note is that all Sundays are considered giorni festivi, or treated like holidays. This means that every Sunday there will be fewer buses and shops will probably close earlier, if they were open in the first place.
What about the rest of the holidays? What are they about? Are they a big enough deal to close schools down, or mere formalities?
The following list includes all the major holidays in Italy that usually affect business hours, schools, and public transport, if not all three. This way we can plan our lives in Italy accordingly and not have to wonder why there are witches and stockings everywhere in the stores in January and not October! I say we because this list is as much a refresher for me as it is for you; I’m fairly certain I end up asking or Googling every year the same holidays because I just can’t keep them all straight! :)
January 1 - Capodanno / New Year’s Day
Yes, even in Italy the New Year happens, albeit 6 hours ahead of the EST.
January 6 - Befana o Epifania / Befana or Epiphany
The day in which the wise men visited Jesus according to the Catholic tradition, hence the word epiphany. If you count from Christmas Day you’ll notice that there are twelve days between it and January 6, which is where the Twelve Days of Christmas originated.
It’s also called Befana in Italy after the old woman who gets on her broom and flies to deliver little gifts to good children who have left out stockings on the night between the 5th and 6th of January. Naughty children will wake up to coal, garlic, or possibly a stick. Children often leave out fruit or treats for Befana and maybe even a glass of wine (ohhh, Santa is jealous). This is similar to the Babbo Natale/Santa Clause tradition, although Befana has been a part of the Italian culture longer than Babbo Natale even.
As one story goes the three wise men are traveling to find baby Jesus in Bethlehem and find themselves in need of direction. They ask an old woman, Befana, who indicates to them the way. (Another version says she didn’t know the way but instead offered them food and a place to stay for the night.) They are so grateful to her that they invite her to come along. Despite their insistence, she refuses. After they depart she regrets staying behind, and attempts to find them, bringing with her a large bag of sweets. She is not successful and gives out the sweets to every child she meets in the hopes that one of them will be Jesus.
Another, darker version recounts Befana as a mother whose child dies. Her grief turns to madness and she goes to offer baby Jesus gifts to make him happy, thinking that he is her son. Jesus in turn gives her the gift of being the mother to all children in Italy, and she goes around giving gifts to them.
You will notice the stores full of witches and pre-filled stockings leading up to this day. The day of Befana usually involves many excited children, parades, and women who dress up like the old, sooty Befana. In Florence there is a parade with the magi coming to see baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph in the nativity setup in front of the Duomo.
This holiday ensures that the Italian children also get their moment of realization when they find out that Befana is not in fact real, haha!
This holiday usually signals the end of the Christmas festivities, with school starting shortly after.
February/March - Carnevale
Carnevale is like a much happier Halloween. It’s a festivity that usually takes place over a period of days, usually in Catholic countries. People dress up, there are parades, and also special sweets and food before the Lenten season begins.
If you’ve been to Venice you probably noticed how many shops sport costumes and masks for Carnevale. In fact, Venice is among the cities most renowned in Italy (and the world) for their Carnevale festivities, along with Viareggio, Cento, Ivrea, Acireale.
March/April - Pasqua e Pasquetta / Easter and Easter Monday
Similar to the US, Good Friday-Easter Sunday are usually government holidays. Easter Monday, or Pasquetta is also a holiday in Italy remembering the women who met the angel at the empty tomb of Jesus, usually spent with family and friends, probably eating.
April 25 - Anniversario della Liberazione d’Italia / Anniversary of the Liberation of Italy
An important day in Italian history when it was freed from fascist control and Nazi occupation.
May 1 - La Festa dei Lavoratori / Worker’s Day
The day that the 8-hour work day became law, first in Chicago, Illinois. This law soon spread to other states and is now celebrated by many countries around the world. Ironically, although it originated in America we now celebrate this achievement in September, and we know it as Labor Day.
June 2 - La Festa della Repubblica / Day of the Republic
A day to celebrate the birth of the Italian Republic after the institutional referendum in 1946.
June 24 - San Giovanni / St. John the Baptist
Each city in Italy has a patron saint and celebrates on different days. John the Baptist is the patron saint of Florence, and is celebrated with fochi d’artificio or fireworks, parades, and the final match of calcio storico Fiorentino, a type of historic soccer/rugby.
Most shops around Florence close in the evening if not the whole day.
August 15 - Ferragosto o Assunzione di Maria Virgine / August Holidays or the Ascension of Virgin Mary
The holiday we discussed in the beginning. It originates from the Roman Empire when Caeser Augustus was emperor in the year 18 a.d. when he designated the August holidays, “Feriae Augusti” in Latin.
This is also the day that the Catholic church says the Virgin Mary ascended into heaven.
In reality, these holidays stretch anywhere from end of July to early September, with most businesses choosing 2-4 weeks within this period to close up shop and head to the coast. So while the towns might be quiet, the beaches are crazy. The actual day of August 15th pretty much everything is closed, so this is a day best used for taking a stroll, a picnic, or staying at home.
October 31 - Halloween
While this is not an Italian holiday, it is an American one and thus becoming quite popular in Italy. Italians don’t tend to dress up as much as they go all out with makeup, the more gruesome and scary the better. All the pretty costumes are saved for Carnevale closer to springtime. The exception would be the expat’s children and a select few Italian children who dress up and go from store to store to trick-or-treat.
This one does not affect schools, transport or business hours.
November 1 - Tutti i Santi / All Saints Day
Just as it sounds, this is a day celebrating all saints. And there are a lot of them.
December 8 - Immacolata Concezione / Immaculate Conception
The day in 1854 in which Mary was declared by Pope Pio IX to have been sinless from the time of her birth until the conception of Jesus. This day deals with the dogma of original sin, and not, as I had originally understood, the day in which the angel appeared to Mary to announce to her that she would give birth to Jesus. That doesn’t work out very well on the calendar anyway if we celebrate Jesus’ birth on December 25th…not that Jesus was born on December 25th in the first place.
December 24, 25 - Vigilia di Natale, Natale / Christmas Eve, Christmas Day
The best days of the year celebrating Jesus’ birth!
December 26 - Santo Stefano / Saint Stephan
A day to commemorate the Saint Stephan. Being so soon after Christmas it all seems to just blend together!
December 31 - Ultimo Giorno dell’Anno / New Year’s Eve
I experienced my first New Year’s Eve in Florence, and wanting to make a fun night of it, went with my husband to the Duomo where there were large crowds and we were hoping to find a countdown. There was no official countdown whatsoever, and several different groups of people seemed to announce it at different times depending on when their phones/watches changed. I kept asking, was that it? Is that the New Year? Needless to say, it was a bit anticlimactic with a lot of chaos. Everyone had open bottles and glasses of beer and wine, and it was sloshing everywhere. Don’t wear nice clothes out in public on New Year’s Eve. Lots of noise, major smooching, and the firecrackers are awful. People like to set them off at random, even the week before and after, and it can be frightening and hurts my ears! If you can’t tell, I have since decided to spend New Year’s Eve (at least in Italy) inside with a nice movie and food and not in the city center! But to each his own! The next day there are bottles and trash strewn everywhere, between little rivers of red wine. Just not a fan of drunkenness and the various aftereffects.
There we are, a (hopefully) comprehensive list of the major holidays in Italy. If I missed any, let me know in the comments below. Or if you’ve had any funny run-ins or fond memories celebrating any of these holidays, I’d love to hear about it! Until next time!