Buon Natale! The festive season is upon us, so here are the most Christmassy events and happenings in Italy – along with some notable traditional celebrations. John Bensalhia greets the season...

It's the season to be jolly. Italy provides the ultimate in traditional festivities for both Christmas and New Year with a slew of events that all ages can enjoy. It's also the month for many traditional occasions marking local patron saints. So don the party hats, break out the champagne, and let's see what gifts December brings in Italy!

SAINT BARBARA DAY – Paternò, 4th December

Saint Barbara is best known in Italy as the patron saint of Paternò in Sicily. The early Christian saint and martyr is also known for being the patron saint of many other things too – including firemen, artillerymen and also firework makers.

The Paternò festival has been a mainstay of the 4th December since the 16th century. It's written that Saint Barbara became Paternò's patron saint after appearing to a Benedictine nun in a dream. At the time the region was gripped by an epidemic and in desperation, the nun pleaded to the Saint to save Paternò. The miracle happened and as a result, Saint Barbara became Paternò's patron saint along with San Vincenzo.

To celebrate this miracle, Saint Barbara Day is held in the early part of December every year. A religious ceremony allows a moment of serious contemplation and in addition to this, many other events are laid on. These include a parade, sporting and musical events, a Nativity scene and of course, fireworks – highly appropriate for this patron saint of firework makers!

FESTA DI SAN NICOLA –  6th December

Another Christian saint to be honoured this month is Saint Nicholas. Greek bishop Saint Nicholas was a Christian saint from the fourth century. But most famously, he is said to be the man who inspired the legend of a certain gift-delivering, bearded chap who tends to crop up quite a bit at this time of year.

Santa Claus? Well, this certainly tallies with Saint Nicholas' generous spirit. What's more, he would carry out secret acts such as leaving gifts and coins in secret.

Abruzzo is one to watch when it comes to Saint Nicholas celebrations. The region is known for its bustling parade and its generous helpings of local traditional breads, biscuits and wines. Venice's Murano Island celebrates the saint for a whole week, and on the actual day of the 6th, there is a superb water procession.

 

SANT'AMBROGIO DAY – Milan, 7th December

Milan marks its one-time governor and bishop on 7th December. Saint Aurelius Ambrosius was also a theologian, a composer and like Saint Nicholas. Was also a generous man, donating his possessions to the poor, for example.

The morning service begins the day's memorial of Saint Ambrosius. The day is later filled with music, song and celebration. A noteworthy custom on this day is the street market called  Oh Bej! Oh Bej! The street market takes place in the streets surrounding Piazza Sant' Ambrogio and offers a wealth of crafts and antiques. There is also much to eat and drink, including a selection of meats, cheeses, pancakes, sweets and mulled wine.

FEAST DAY OF THE IMMACULATE CONCEPTION – 8th December

Originally announced as an official Feast Day in 1854 by Pius IX, The Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception takes place every year in Italy on 8th December.

Throughout Italy, ceremonies and celebrations are held to mark the day. Fire is a key element of the event, and this is attributed to a number of interpretations such as getting rid of sins, warming the Madonna or warming Jesus' garments. With that in mind, many regions mark the day with the flame. Umbria lights the Fires of the Arrival. Abruzzo lights a bonfire as songs are sung. People clutch torches (or faugini) in Atri as they make their way in procession to the cathedral.

Elsewhere, Italy honours this day in other ways whether it's the Roman ceremony at the Spanish Steps or the the consumption of seasoned, fried bread, pettole in Apulia.

SANTA LUCIA DAY – 13th December

A Christmas tradition is to leave a pie and a hot drink (or something stronger) for Santa on 24th December.

In Italy, another tradition runs along these lines 12 days earlier. To herald Santa Lucia Day, in North Eastern regions of Italy, youngsters are invited to leave a small collection of goodies for the spirit of Saint Lucy, the Christian martyr and patron saint of Syracuse. A cup of coffee is left for Saint Lucy, a carrot for her donkey and a glass of wine for Castaldo, her escort. Good children will be suitably rewarded with a selection of gifts left behind the next morning!

Syracuse pays tribute to its patron saint with a fireworks display and special parade. The centrepiece of the parade is a large, heavy silver statue. Weighing in at 90 kilos, the statue needs the strength of around 60 men to take it to the Church of Santa Lucia.

ST STEPHEN'S DAY – 26th December

Traditionally, Italians keep themselves to themselves on Christmas Day. It's a day for family and friends, as their houses are filled with loved ones to enjoy plenty of food, drink and good company.

But the next day, the streets are busy again as Italy marks St Stephen's Day. St Stephen is known as the first Christian martyr and was one of the first deacons of the Christian church.

The actual St Stephen's Day is said to draw inspiration from 26th December 1394. On this day, the relics of Saint Stephen were taken from the repository of the Castle of Monopoli and taken to Putignano in Bari on the orders of the Knights of St John. As the relics were carried by wagon, the knights guarding the vehicle were met with a growing crowd of interested locals. By the time the wagon made it to its destination, it had attracted quite a crowd! To represent purity, a mixture of chickpeas and barley (Farinetta) was created and applied to faces.

Today, the day is celebrated in many ways. Sometimes, people choose to make a quiet visit to church to leave a donation. Or, alternatively, processions are held. In Putignano, to replicate the original Mass, poetry is spoken in the local dialect.

A common theme of this day is that of Nativity re-enactments. Good examples include Veneto's 300-strong retelling of the Bible story, the living Nativity scene around the streets of Vaccheria or Fara San Martino's worthy re-enactment.

CHRISTMAS EVENTS AND MARKETS

The festive spirit is alive each year in Italy. For a serious reminder of the meaning of Christmas, St Peter's Square in Vatican City hosts Midnight Mass. This event sees many people flock to the Square – the ceremony can also be seen on a large TV in this location. The next day, the Pope also broadcasts his annual Christmas message to the masses.

Christmas Eve is lit up in the area of Cortina d'Ampezzo. The Alpine Peak is lit up with skiers bearing torches to mark the dawning of Christmas. For a watery Christmas Eve, it's customary for a group of canoeists to dress up as Santa in Umbria. The canoeing Santas paddle along the Tiber river to the end destination of a special crib at the bridge at Porta San Florido. Young onlookers will also be the lucky recipients of some special presents which will be given by the Santa canoeists at the end of the event!

The ultimate Christmas Light Display can be seen in Umbria. Located near the peak of Monte Ingino is the world's tallest Christmas Tree which boasts over 700 lights and a star that can be seen as far away as 50 km. Torino also puts on a spectacular light show. More than 20km of streets and squares come to life with special illuminations to really get you in the mood for the season.

Babbo Natale time! Kids can get to meet Santa in locations such as Rome and Florence (he's a busy chap this time of year y'know). In Rome, you can get your picture taken with the man himself while in Florence, Santa's abode will be open to all (and no doubt the odd present or two!).

A common type of Christmas market is the German-style offering. There are some good ones at Florence (which features a multitude of specially prepared booths in Piazza Santa Croce between late November and early December) and Verona (which includes wooden stalls selling fantastic German-inspired goodies along with local foods, decorations and crafts).

One of the best things about Italian Christmas markets is the sense of tradition that they bring. The Naples market bears this in mind by dressing up the vendors in traditional shepherd costumes. The market, near Via San Gregorio Armeno, also holds special nativity workshops for the full Christmas experience.

The Italian Christmas market conjures up its own world in many cases. Many markets are held in purpose-built huts. Trento offers a good instance of this, boasting 60 wooden huts built for the occasion. All sorts of items are available to buy including crafts, festive decorations and home-made foods. Venice's Campo Santo Stefano also proudly hosts its very own mini-village selling local crafts, gifts and food and drink.

NEW YEAR'S EVE

If you're a New Year's Eve refusenik like me, then the best form of celebration will be a quiet night in with your loved ones. On the other hand, if you're a New Year's Eve fan, then don't worry, there's plenty to keep you occupied in Italy on the last night of the year.

If you're looking to pucker up at the stroke of midnight, then a good port of call is Venice's St Mark's Square. As the last few seconds of the year ebb away, it's customary for a big group kiss – the large scale smooch is also held in Mestre's Piazza Ferretto. There are also the usual fireworks and music performances to enjoy. Talking of music, La Fenice Theatre puts on a memorable New Year's concert between 30th December and 1st January. There's also a party taking place from 8pm on the New Year's Eve performance day.

Fireworks fan? Then you're spoilt for choice. Naples puts on a particularly good display that's guaranteed to see the New Year in with a bang. Piazza del Plebiscito also lays on a series of concerts that encompass musical ranges from rock to traditional. If you want a memorable vantage point to witness the displays, then there are many great ones to enjoy. Fireworks are accompanied by music over the Arno River – you can enjoy the fireworks from any of the bridges of the Arno. In Rimini, you can see the fireworks casting a reflection on the seas – and you can also sample some celebrations that include dancing and music.

Rome puts on quite a spread on 31st December. There's a classical music concert in front of the Quirinale on the Square. You can also listen to classical sounds in Piazza del Popolo along with other kinds of music such as rock and pop. Near to the Colosseum, there is also a selection of live music from 8pm as well as the traditional fireworks at midnight.

An intriguing and colourful New Year's Eve celebration occurs in Bologna. Fiera del Bue Grasso (or the Fat Ox Fair) decorates the eponymous ox with ribbons and flowers. The lucky winner of the event's lottery will get to take the ox home! The event also includes a candle-lit procession and the chiming of church bells to ring in the new year.