What are the most important dates in the Italian calendar?
The Christmas season starts on December 8th when we celebrate the Immaculate Conception which is the conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary free from original sin by virtue of the merits of her son Jesus Christ. The Catholic Church teaches that God acted upon Mary in the first moment of her conception keeping her “immaculate”. Usually families get together for lunch and it is traditionally the day that the Christmas tree and Nativity Scene are built.
In Milan the day before, December 7th, is the patron Saint (Saint Ambrogio) so people who work and live in Milan start celebrating and staying home a day before (except for stores and shops, since it’s December, they are open constantly even if it’s holiday).
In my part of Italy we celebrate Saint Lucia as talked about in this post, on December 13th. Like Santa she brings gifts to good children.
Then there is Christmas, same as everywhere else, I believe, with Santa (or for the most religious Baby Jesus) who brings gifts to good kids and coal to bad ones. Time for big gathering (it could be more than 20 people in certain families) and big lunch or dinner. Usually after Christmas lunch gifts are opened and people play “tombola” (bingo).
The day after is another big gathering, usually with the other side of the family. Typically Christmas is with one side of the family and Saint Stephen (the 26th) is with the other side, or it could be a big gathering, both days with everyone in the family (we are Italian after all…). December 26th, as said, Saint Stephen, the fist martyr of Christians is celebrated. Usually if it is celebrated with the same family as Christmas a leftover lunch is eaten and even if it’s celebrated with the other family the lunch is smaller than Christmas (but Panettone and Pandoro is a must!).
Obviously December 31st is the New Year Eve with a big dinner called “cenone di capodanno”. It can be held in a house, especially family with small kids, maybe with friends or in restaurants where people wait for midnight together. In squares of big cities like Milan, Naples (I don’t know Rome…) and others a concert is held where people can gather for free. On January 1st, usually there is a small lunch to celebrate the first day of the new year with family (for the ones who didn’t celebrate till dawn…).
Christmas celebrations are over on January 6th when we celebrate the Epiphany, which commemorates the visit of the three Magi (Wise men) to the Baby Jesus. A small lunch is held with family and in some places the “Befana” brings small gifts and sweets to children (since we have Saint Lucia, the Befana brings only sweets). Usually this is the day when Christmas decorations are taken down and put away for the next Christmas season. To know some more about the Befana, read this post.