Twelve Dates of the Florence Christmas

Story and Photos by Sandy Swanton

As the days shorten and the weather cools, the crowds thin and it is easier to get around Florence…that is until the Christmas lights start to appear. White that may conjure up images of a lawn covered in lights, Christmas in Italy is understand and elegant.

Twelve Dates of Florence Christmas1The 12 Days of Christmas usually starts after Christmas Day, but then you’d miss some of the best of these 12 dates to celebrate in style in Florence. From main piazzas and streets to medieval alleys, there are parades and celebrations, markets and singing, and food with family and friends.

It all sounds very normal, until you come across a celebration that was enjoyed more than 500 years ago – an interesting perspective to consider. Although most of these festivities haven’t been held each year throughout history, it is easy to see the whispers of the ancient city in the modern holiday season.

Street by street they dance –the first date of Christmas
It isn’t every city that can adorn an ancient Roman road with chandeliers. Florence can, and does, with flair. Stroll around the different streets and neighborhoods to enjoy the streetlights and window displays as they start to appear.

The lights start to go up in early December and are there until January 6 – Epiphany. Some neighborhoods change the decorations each year; others don’t. It is worth taking time through the season to explore.

Northern welcome to the holidays – the second date of Christmas
As the lights start adorning the air between villas and palazzos, Piazza Santa Croce fills with German-style wooden houses in preparation for the opening night of the Christmas Market – Weihnachstsmarkt. While it is not the only market during the holidays, it is the longest I’ve found. It brings together food from across Europe, such as glühvein (mulled wine),pork knuckles, Polish sausage and Austrian strudel, and gifts, from small furniture to Christmas decorations.

Twelve Dates of Florence Christmas3There are a lot of markets across the city, with some supporting very worthy causes. There are also Christmas markets in many of the nearby villages – Fiesole is easiest to reach, but they are also in the nearby Mugello and Chianti regions. In honor of the holiday for the Immaculate Conception, there is a two-day fair – 9am-8pm, December 7-8 – with crafts and food in Piazza Santissima Annunziata, behind the Duomo along Via dei Servi.

On with the lights – the third date of Christmas
5pm December 8 – My third date of Christmas brings together an Italian national holiday and religious celebration with the official lighting of the grand tree in Piazza del Duomo Lighting of the tree On the holiday of the Immaculate Conception, many families start to decorate their Christmas tree and set up the Nativity scene in their homes.And Florence does the same. Shortly before
5pm, the Bandierai degli Uffizi throw their flags before the official ceremony by the Mayor. Between the Christmas tree and the Duomo you will find the life-size terracotta Nativity scene – presepe. These beautiful statues are made by artisans from Impruneta, a nearby village famous for terracotta items. The tree and the presepe remain in place until January 6.

Florence, food and family –the fourth date of Christmas
Food in Italy is not simply about energy – it is about life – gathering with family and friends to enjoy time together. As you stroll past a forno or pasticceria, slow down to look in the windows,
to gently inhale the aromas of baked Christmas treats. Maybe you’ll find a new favorite to enjoy even after the holidays. The markets offer selections from across Italy and Europe – you are bound to find something new to tickle your taste buds. There are traditional treats of panettone or panforte, and a glass of prosecco – maybe you can find some friends to share the experience with you.

Twelve Dates of Florence Christmas4In piazzas you’ll find roasted chestnuts – bruciate – for sale. They are incredible to warm you up as you look at the lights. Or maybe order a hot chocolate, although the cioccolato caldo is not like anything you’ve ever tasted. More like a dessert than a drink, it will beat any winter breeze that might be blowing. In Piazza della Repubblica and Piazza della Signoria you’ll find windows adorned with holiday sweets of all shapes and sizes.

On Christmas Day, Florentines will most likely start with a selection of local salamis and prosciutto, cheeses and olives while enjoying a glass of prosecco. Crostini Toscani, hand-made tortellini in broth, homemade pasta with wild boar sauce – cinghiale, or lasagna, are likely to follow with a side dish of in-season vegetables. And to finish, a selection of pastries, cakes and other sweet treats will be served.

Twelve Dates of Florence Christmas6Lights on Santo Spirito – the fifth date of Christmas
While Christmas in Italy has stores selling wonderful treats, it is the celebration of families and local people that makes it all so interesting. A series of artwork by local artists, including children, are projected onto the façade of Santo Spirito church, changing slowly to reveal different themes, always offering light to the piazza below.

The arrival of Babbo Natale –the sixth date of Christmas
December 24 – Christmas Eve Babbo Natale – Italy’s name for Father Christmas – is more regal and slimmer than his western counterpart. Most Italians now share gifts after his visit on Christmas Eve, although historically, gifts weren’t exchanged until January 6 with La Befana, but more of that shortly. The celebration of Christmas Eve Mass has long been the start of family celebrations in Italy. If you plan to attend the midnight mass at the Duomo, plan to arrive early to get a seat, maybe 90 minutes early. There are other services available in English at St. Mark’s and St. James at 11pm.

Buon Natale – the seventh date of Christmas December 25 – Christmas Day
Christmas Day Mass, 10:30am at the Duomo, features Gregorian chants. Again, you want to arrive early, although not as early as the midnight mass.

If you don’t have plans already, it will be important to make a reservation for your meal. Many of the top hotels offer set menus, and some of the restaurants close to allow staff time with family, so those that do open can often be busy and may have two seatings.

Finally, most of the museums will be closed December 25 and January 1, plus their usual closing days, often Mondays. Many of them have additional openings on other days, so it is worth looking at their websites to see what suits your plans.

Twelve Dates of Florence Christmas8Sharing with others – the eighth date of Christmas December 26 – Santo Stefano, the Feast of Stephen
After time with family on Christmas Eve and Christmas day, many Italians go out on the 26th to visit Nativity scenes at local churches or their local hospital and make a small donation. This is done in memory of Saint Stephen, the Apostle in charge of collecting donations for the poor and believed to be the first Christian martyr.

Celebrate winter – the ninth date of Christmas
Winter doesn’t have to be filled with grey clothing and no fun. As well as strolling to see the lights and shop windows, Florence has two winter parks to enjoy. Through December you can find an ice rink in the Parterre area, near Piazza della Libertà, with skates available for rent. Between late October and early March, head to Lungarno Aldo Moro to enjoy ice skating, snow tubing or downhill skiing at Firenze Winter Park, with equipment available to rent. Or simply watch those enjoying the winter sports while you indulge in a little après-skiing at the bars or dine at the
restaurant.

Twelve Dates of Florence Christmas9The New Year’s Eve dance – the tenth date of Christmas
December 31 – Capodanno New Year’s Eve in Florence is like that in most cities – you could share a meal with family or friends and catch some fireworks afterwards. But the fireworks aren’t an organized event. It is worth looking for a good vantage point to watch the skyline as private events take place. Along the river is another good spot to watch, particularly after enjoying your dinner and one of the free outdoor concerts in a piazza or two.

Ranging from dance music to classical, pop music to gospel, there is usually something for most musical tastes. In 2014 you could find stages in Piazza della Signoria, Piazza della Carmine, Piazza Annigoni, Obihall, Le Murate and Parco Cascine.

Just don’t be surprised when you hear very loud bangs! It is a tradition to let off fireworks throughout the evening, and in the beautiful stone piazzas, the noise bounces around the buildings and through your body. The loud noises of the cracknels, and even champagne bottles, are a tradition to dissuade ghosts and spirits from our midst as we enter the next year.

As you prepare for the January 1, there are some wonderful Italian traditions to include in your evening – eating lentils at midnight to bring fortune to the New Year, and throwing out something old gives renewed dreams.

Twelve Dates of Florence Christmas10Dating back to the Romans, wearing new red underwear brings good luck, and is said to remove the fear of both war and bloodshed, or the modern-day equivalents of evil and negativity. If you are lucky enough to have some mistletoe at Christmas, keep it for New Year’s Eve. The Italian tradition to kiss under the mistletoe on New Year’s Eve is thought to enhance your chances to find love.

Winter sales will wait – the eleventh date of Christmas
January 5 Thankfully, in Italy Christmas is about family, which means the Christmas sales have to wait – they don’t start on the 26th, but after New Year’s Eve. It varies through the country – in Florence it is typically January 5.

While this might seem like torture, it does mean you can enjoy window shopping and browsing during the holidays and be ready when the sales start. Remember, as much as the fashion houses have shops in the city, it is the leather goods that make shopping here more enticing.

Twelve Dates of Florence Christmas11A celebration in two parts – the twelfth date of Christmas
January 6 – La Befana and the Cavalcade of the Magi Epiphany is celebrated in Florence in two important ways – again, with tradition and religion. The Christmas witch – La Befana – brings presents to the children of Italy. If a family hasn’t exchanged presents at Christmas with Babbo Natale, then the kind witch is part of their tradition.

The old soot-covered Befana delivers candy and presents to children who have been good through the year. Her tradition dates back to the 13th century and comes from Christian legend. It is said that La Befana was approached by the three kings seeking baby Jesus, but she was too busy cleaning her house and sent the kings on their way. Realizing her mistake, she gathered gifts and went to search for baby Jesus alone.

Although she followed the star, she was unable to find the stable and continues each year searching for the Christ child. Which brings us to a magical afternoon and parade in the streets of Florence. The Cavalcade of the Magi – the three wise men – is a large parade with magnificent costumes that processes across the Ponte Vecchio into Piazza della Signoria and on to Piazza del Duomo for the delivery of gifts to Jesus. The elements of the spectacle are taken from a small fresco of the Epiphany procession inside Palazzo Medici Riccardi, by Benozzo Gozzoli. Starting in 1417, three of the Medici family dressed up as the kings, with flag-throwers, drummers, cavalry and nobles to bring offerings to the Duomo. Although the parade stopped in 1494 when the Medici were exiled from Florence, it was started again in the late 1990s and is very popular today.

PS: Pitti Uomo awaits
Considered the world’s most important event for men’s clothing and accessory collections, the sights and color of Pitti Uomo fills the streets as the Christmas lights come down. Thankfully, in this open-air museum, the contemporary global lifestyle is alive and thriving, drawing everyone forward into the New Year.

SusanSandy Swanton is a freelance travel writer/ photographer and blogger. Training in graphic design, Sandy spent 25 years developing a strong portfolio career in writer and visual communications in eastern Australia and western Canada. Now living in Italy and pursuing her triple passions of travel, painting pictures with words, and finding the unusual perspective to photograph, Sandy is also working as a consultant with several local destinations to tell their stories. Stepping out of the corporate world into the next chapters of her life, you can follow her travels in her blog, GlobalWanderings.ca

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