Festivities and celebrations in Italy, with a focus on traditions in Rome.

1 January: New Year’s Day

The origins of New Year celebrations go back 4,000 years and more, when the Babylonians celebrated it, but then the start of the year coincided with the first day of spring. Only in 45 A.D., with the creation of the Julian calendar, was the start of the year fixed at 1 January. The date would become universal in 1582 with the introduction of the Gregorian calendar.

How it is celebrated in Rome: Most celebrations take place on the night of St Sylvester, New Year’s Eve, with open-air concerts, fireworks, people out in the streets, going to nightclubs or opting to stay in. The (free) New Year concert is held in Piazza del Popolo or at the Colosseum on the 31st, with the participation of one or more famous Italian singers. On January 1st most shops are closed. Public transport services are running, cinemas are open, as are theatres, which often put on special concerts or shows to celebrate the new year.

6 January: Epiphany

Commemorating the visit of the three wise men to Jesus. On this date Christian tradition celebrates Christ’s revelation to the pagans. It has been a bank holiday in Italy since 1985.

How it is celebrated in Rome: Epiphany in Rome is a colourful event. The tradition is for children to hang a stocking in the kitchen or living room and make hot coffee for the old woman Befana who will visit their homes during the night. Children who have been good will be given sweets and toys, those who have been bad only coal. On the night of 5 January Piazza Navona is filled with sweets stalls, which have been set up and running in the days up to the event. Children can have their photos taken with Santa Claus and the Befana. Shops are usually closed. Public transport services are running.

Easter Sunday and Easter Monday

One of the most important events in the liturgical calendar is the celebration of Christ’s Resurrection, the culmination of His redemption work. Not being on a fixed day, it governs the holidays that follow it, namely Ascension and Pentecost. Easter falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon of spring, between 22 March and 25 April. In the post-war period in Italy Easter Monday is a bank holiday.

How it is celebrated: according to Catholic tradition Easter is preceded by a period of abstinence and penitence: Lent. On Easter Sunday Mass is celebrated in the morning to be followed by lunch to celebrate the happy event. Easter breakfast is particularly rich in Italy: salami, bread, chocolate eggs, which contain a surprise gift. Lunch is similarly rich: in Rome lamb and artichokes are usually on the menu. Most shops are closed, but public transport services are running.

17 March: Unification of Italy (only in 2011)

A National feast day, it was celebrated only on 17 March 2011, on the occasion of the 150th Anniversary of the proclamation of the Kingdom of Italy.

25 April: Day of National Liberation

This date commemorates the general uprising of partisans in 1945 that freed most of northern Italy from the Nazi-fascist occupation. This festivity was recognised by Law 260 of 27 May 1949, as was 2 June (founding of the Republic).

What happens in Rome: The President of the Republic goes to the Altare della Patria (tomb of the unknown soldier) to pay homage to the fallen in battle. Most shops are closed, but public transport services are running.

1 May: May Day, or Labour Day

Recognised practically all over the world. This holiday has its origins in America in the 19th century, and was introduced in Europe in 1889 by the Second International in Paris and in Italy in 1891. It was suspended only during the twenty years of fascism, before being recognised as a national holiday with Law 260 of 27 May 1949. In addition to the obligation of observing holiday hours on this day, certain legal actions cannot be performed on May Day.

How it is celebrated in Rome: All workers have the day off, meeting in parks or other public places to eat and celebrate. The traditional menu in Rome includes broad beans and pecorino cheese. At St.Johns there is the traditional May Day concert, including international artists. Workers come together in the squares all over Italy. The underground service in the San Giovanni zone is suspended until late evening. Traffic delays are possible in central areas where parties are going on in the piazzas.

2 June: Republic Day

On this day Italy celebrates the referendum which in 1946 saw the move from constitutional Monarchy to Republic after the fall of fascism.

How it is celebrated: There is the traditional and spectacular parade of the Italian Armed Forces right in the city centre. The route ends in via dei Fori Imperiali, up to the Altare della Patria, where the President of the Republic and leading political-institutional figures of the Italian government, guests of honour, salute from the stands. The Frecce Tricolore, Italy’s equivalent of the UK’s red arrows, offer a glorious show of colour and flying acrobatics. Celebrations continue in the gardens of the Quirinale, open to the general public for the occasion, with the participation of the bands of the Armed Forces and Armed Corps. Most shops are closed, but public transport services are running.

29 June: St. Peter and St Paul’s day

This date commemorates the martyrdom of the two Apostles in 67 A.D and the depositing of their bodies in the catacombs of St Sebastian, on 29 June 258 A.D under Emperor Valerian. Peter and Paul are considered to be the founders of Roman Christianity, being the first to bring the Word to the capital of the Empire. For this reason they were chosen as patron saints of the city. Initially recognised as a national holiday, on 29 June it is a festivity celebrated since 1985 only within the municipality of Rome (decree of the President of the Republic no. 792 of 28 December 1985).

Most shops are closed on this day, but public transport services are running.

15 August: Assumption of the Virgin Mary (Ferragosto)

On this day profane and Christian traditions unite. This holiday has existed since 18 B.C., created by Octavian Augustus in 18 B.C., Ferragosto derives from Feriae Augusti, Augustus’ rest. This date also marks the dogma (proclaimed by Pope Pious XII in 1950) of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, her Ascension into the heavens in both body and soul.

How it is celebrated in Rome: the city empties, except for the tourists. At Ferragosto it is practically impossible to find a square inch of sand: Rome’s citizens pour onto the beach and spend the day together. The traffic is intense. Public transport services are running.

1 November: All Saints Day

A holiday celebrating all saints, known and forgotten. The origins of this holiday are lost in the sands of time. It arose however from the need to pay homage to all the martyrs who, in particular after Diocletian’s persecutions, did not have a day devoted to their memory.

In Rome most shops are closed on this day, but public transport services are running.

8 December: Immaculate Conception

A Catholic dogma proclaimed in 1854 by Pope Pious IX, sanctioning the Virgin Mary’s immunity from original sin.

According to tradition on this day the Christmas tree and Nativity scene are brought out and put up by families. Shops are partially closed. Public transport services are running.

24 December: Christmas Eve

A working day, celebrations are put back until the evening, with the traditional and rich Christmas Eve dinner, usually fish-based. Midnight Mass is celebrated in all Churches. At midnight many families unwrap their presents traditionally brought by Santa Claus for the children.

25 December: Christmas

Probably one of the first Christian festivals, celebrating the birth of Jesus.

The streets of Rome are decorated with Christmas lights already one or two months before the big day. Shops put up their decorations, the city fills up with market stalls. In recent years ice rinks have been installed in Villa Borghese, Castel S.Angelo, Piazza Re di Roma and the Auditorium (Flaminio district). Christmas is an opportunity for families to unite. Celebrations begin on Christmas Eve, on the 25th families come together again for lunch. This is when people gorge themselves: typical Italian festive sweets – pandoro, panettone, nougat – adorn the table until late evening. Traditionally families play bingo and card games. There are numerous concerts and events in theatres and on the streets. On the 25th the shops are closed, while public transport services are running.

26 December: St Stephen, or Boxing Day

The Christmas atmosphere goes on: eating and playing together. Shops are closed. Public transport services are running.