The aroma of cinnamon and vin brulè (mulled wine) fills up the crisp air of December; handmade items including timber toys, seasonal decorations and local crafts are on display in pretty wood houses or stands; children play on the merry-go-round as their laughter combines with the melodies of the playground… Christmas markets are a joy for your senses!
For Italians, the Christmas market has a strong link with family traditions: grandparents, parents and children buy the festive decorations for their house, tree and Nativity scene; they shop for gifts for the traditional exchange between young and old; and buy the scented confectionery made by those experts who keep their secret recipes.
Large cities and small villages dot themselves with markets all over the boot from late November or early December until Christmas Eve or until the Epiphany on 6 January. Let’s have a look at some of the most beautiful markets from North to South.
The tradition of Christmas markets date back to the middle ages, and the first written document on this matter talks about a market in Dresden in 1434. Before spreading across Europe, this Christmas tradition took off in Germany and Austria. For this reason, the seasonal markets with the strongest roots are in northern Italy. The most famous are located in Trentino Alto Adige: if you visit Bolzano, Bressanone, Brunico, Merano and Vipiteno, you might actually believe that you are in Germany! For centuries, the families living up on the mountains of Trentino Alto Adige, learned to make everything at home: to weave, to carve wood, to sew and knit wool and fabrics. The local crafts and artistry that originates from this ancient tradition and livelihood is evident in the markets of the region.
While most Christmas markets are organized outdoors, the most famous indoors market takes place in Bussolengo (Verona), and is called Villaggio di Natale Flover. It has reached its 20th edition, which makes it relatively new, yet it features a beautiful space dedicated to the ancient traditions of the artisans. You can see these experts at work, as their creations come to life through glassblowing, inlay and painting. One of the most unique sights is the Living Nativity, which includes an itinerary along ancient trades. Artisans and participants are dressed up in period costumes, hard at work as blacksmiths, coin metalworkers, wool spinners, wood sculptors, tarot readers, and many others. This is a fantastic way to bring children and adults closer to the most ancient traditions of Christmas. For the little ones, there is even an enchanted forest inhabited by nine lovely gnomes!
Moving to central Italy, the medieval town of Gualdo Tadino (near Perugia in Umbria) presents the first-ever “Presepe Emozionale”, a monumental Nativity Scene that occupies an entire nave in the Church of San Francesco. Over 200 m², you can find beautifully crafted structures in wood and cardboard that reproduce an ancient village on the Apennines and the Nativity hut, combined with visual and audio effects that give life to the water mill, the bonfire of the farmers, the wood ovens of the bakers… This presepe (Nativity) accompanies the traditional Christmas market in the city center. Among the local artisanal specialties, you will find beautiful ceramics resulting from centuries of skilled work by great masters. In fact, pottery became a thriving industry in the 16th century and had one of its maximum exponents towards the end of the 19th century: Paolo Rubboli used the ancient technique of lusterware, something that still inspires the current production.
In neighboring Tuscany, the lovely village of Montepulciano features the Castle of Santa Claus within the walls of its Medieval Fortress, and a characteristic mercatino natalizio with 70 decorated wood huts that guarantee original products. Local artisanal and cultural associations were involved in the organization of the initiative and in the selection of diverse product categories: Christmas decorations, traditional food as well as quality street food, confectionary, leatherwork and clothing, local craftsmanship and – of course – Montepulciano DOCG and DOC wines. This Christmas market is located in magical squares such as Piazzetta Danesi, a natural terrace overlooking Val D’Orcia.
Heading south, we reach one of Italy’s most boisterous and merry cities, Naples! Sure, it does not have the snow and northern-European atmosphere, but the street of Via San Gregorio Armeno features the most iconic artisan workshops dedicated to the “arte del presepio”. For local families, this street represents an important tradition and an obligatory stop before they build their own Nativity at home. Although they are open year-round, these botteghe have a different, special feel as Christmas gets closer. Here you can see top artisans creating, exhibiting and selling the miniature figures that make up the Nativity scene. You can find any sort of item: from huts made in cork or cardboard to mechanical items activated by electric energy such as windmills; from hand-painted, terracotta shepherds to 30cm-tall statues in hand-woven dresses. The predominant aspect of the typical Neapolitan Nativity is its perfect fusion between the sacred and the profane – after all, it not only involves the statues of the Holy Family, the Magi, and the shepherds in every shape and price range, but also very common are parodies of famous characters from both past and present.
If you visit Naples, don’t miss the beautiful display of lights in nearby Salerno… these images speak for themselves!
Our mini tour of beautiful Christmas markets ends in the warm island of Sicily. Palermo hosts the large “Fiera di Natale” fair from mid-November to January, where you can buy Christmas decorations and artisanal artifacts. However, the prettiest and most traditional market takes place from 16 to 25 December in Piazza Unità d’Italia. This is where local artisans and artists expose their products, ideal if you are looking for original gifts. Here you can also enjoy spaces dedicated to Sicilian Nativities, a true tradition of Palermo. Last but not least, your sweet tooth will be delighted to indulge in the delicious desserts and sweets of Sicily’s Christmas tradition!
Apart from the spiritual significance of this time of the year, Christmas also provides artisans with an additional occasion for promoting or selling their works of art, and for consumers to buy authentic handmade products and typical gastronomic specialties. Especially in these times of globalization and availability of cheap products fabricated with questionable imitation practices and industrial machines, Italian Special Occasions DMC firmly believes in the necessity of safeguarding ancient trades and original Made-in-Italy products.
If you agree with us as well, and are a fan of quality Italian products, at Italian Special Occasions DMC we can guide you in planning a vacation with family and friends that includes original leisure activities for you to explore the world of ancient traditions handed down from generation to generation, and of skilled hands and creative minds capable of creating beautiful products and works of art. Contact us now!