Christmas: Italy does it bigger and better

Rome: Every country has its own unique Christmas traditions, and Italy may not be the first European country you’d associate with winter cosiness. But the country goes all out for the holidays, and does Christmas bigger and, we think, better than anywhere else. If you’re a fan of all things festive, here’s why Italy is the place to be.

Rome’s beleaguered tree usually gets all the attention. But for something really spectacular, go to the town of Gubbio, Umbria, which holds the record for the largest albero di Natale in the world.

No trees are harmed in the making of it though, as the giant ‘tree’ on the slope of Mount Inginois made of hundreds of multicoloured lights. The tree stands at an enormous 650 meters high and has held the Guinness World Record since 1991. The tree lights are switched on each year on December 7th and can be seen until January 10th.

Italy has more varieties of Christmas cake than anyone can count, although trying them all is a worthy goal to have. Panettone has to be the most famous of all, and in the spirit of doing everything bigger and better, chocolatiers in Milan have managed to make a record-breaking giant panettone that weighs an incredible 332.2 kilograms. These cakes somehow seem to disappear at my house, usually long before Christmas Day, but even we’d have trouble getting through that.

It’s no secret that Italy is obsessed with presepi, or nativity scenes. You’ll find them set up everywhere from churches and squares to inside cafes and Italian homes. They come in all shapes and sizes, some with moving parts, lights and even sound effects. Some modern versions show an entire Christmas village, or might incorporate politicians, footballers and other public figures – popular or otherwise.

But the most impressive must be the live nativity scene in the ancient cave town of Matera, Basilicata. In the world’s biggest live Christmas nativity, theatrical performances of six different parts of the nativity story take place in atmospheric locations around the town, which is the European Capital of Culture for 2019.

There’s a good reason it’s called cenone (big dinner). If you think a whole roast turkey and all the trimmings is a lot of food, try having Christmas dinner here in Italy.

Menus vary dramatically depending on region and family, and you could be served anything from lasagne to seafood, though there will undoubtedly be plenty of choice. One friend’s family in Tuscany last year served up roast turkey, roast pork, and roast chicken, for six people – after antipasti and two plates of pasta, of course.

If you like a glass of bubbly on Christmas Day or New Year’s Eve, chances are you’ll be drinking something Italian-made this year. Italian winemakers will be toasting a record year for sparkling wine sales abroad as the world’s prosecco consumption soars, with Italian sparkling wines now more popular than French champagne.

70 percent of Italy’s sparkling wine  – that’s 500 million bottles – was sent overseas this year, most of it going to the prosecco-loving UK, US and Germany. Hopefully there will still be plenty left for us in Italy!

December is the month when Italians look forward to the tredicesima, or ’thirteenth’ – a whole extra month’s wages on top of your December salary to put towards the cost of Christmas. All that food costs money, after all!

Many (though not all) public and private employees are eligible, along with pensioners, and this year the bonus is expected to cost the country around €30 billion for 33 million people with €10 billion of that coming from the state. Now that’s what I call a Christmas present.