In ancient times the Romans celebrated Saturnalia, a winter solstice festival, with religious rites and drunken feasts. The early Christian church decreed December 25 — then the feast of the sun god Mithras — as the birthday of Gesù bambino (Baby Jesus), the “true light” who came to dispel darkness in the world. Modern Italian holidays blend religious and pagan festivities that create un’atmosfera natalizia that lasts from weeks before to weeks after December 25.

Although you can find more extravagant decorations in the United States, Christmas lights and alberi di Natale (Christmas trees) have become more popular in Italy. In Torino lighting artists illuminate more than twelve miles of streets and squares. An 875-yard-high Christmas tree—reportedly the world’s tallest–with 450 lights stands near the top of Monte Ingino, above Gubbio in Umbria. Its bright star can be seen from as far away as Perugia. Christmas markets are especially popular in towns and villages in the north of Italy.

The key dates for la stagione natalizia (Christmas season) include:

*December 6: La festa di San Nicola, patron saint of shepherds and of Bari – and the inspiration for the modern-day “Santa Claus.”

*December 8: La festa dell’Immacolata, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, a Catholic holy day honoring Mary, the virgin mother of Jesus. In Rome the Pope comes to the Piazza di Spagna to drop a garland of flowers around the statue of the Madonna. (Since she stands atop a high column, fire fighters on ladders do the actual placement.)

*December 13: La festa di Santa Lucia, the festival of lights.

*December 24: La vigilia di Natale, the vigil or eve of Christmas.

*December 25: Natale, the “birthday” of Gesù bambino.

*December 26: La festa di Santo Stefano, Saint Steven’s day.

*December 31: La festa di San Silvestro, Saint Sylvester’s day, or New Year’s Eve (la vigilia di Capodanno).

*January 1: Il Capodanno, literally the top of the year.

*January 6: L’Epifania (Epiphany), which marks the arrival of the Re Magi, the three wise men who carried gifts from afar, and of La Befana, bearer of treats for good girls and boys

Here are some seasonal Italian greetings for this joyful time:

Buone Feste — Happy Celebrations / Holidays!

Buon Natale e Felice Anno Nuovo — Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

I più cari auguri per un sereno Natale e per un anno nuovo ricco di soddisfazioni — Dearest wishes for a peaceful Christmas and a fulfilling new year

I migliori auguri per il Santo Natale e per il 2020 – Best wishes for Holy Christmas and for 2020

Dianne Hales is the author of  LA PASSIONE: How Italy Seduced the World, LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World’s Most Enchanting Language and MONA LISA: A Life Discovered. For more information, visit diannehales.com.