Christmas in Sicily is simply magical.
While the mediterrean island tops bucket lists for summer holidays, there’s an overlooked allure to spending Christmas and New Year’s wandering through this Italian gem. Under the cool gaze of winter, Sicily transforms into a twinkling show of nativity scenes, Christmas trees and traditions that decorate the entire island. Local homes and businesses are no longer sleeping under the summer sun, but instead glowing and embracing the frosty touch of the moon with extravagant lights and decor for all to see, including wandering tourists.
As the summer crowd thins, the entire island welcomes the ease of tradition, religious ceremonies and feasts that make this time of year in Sicily charmingly quaint and local. It’s not only comforting and wholesome, but also a truly authentic time to visit this Italian staple
Planning your trip? Here’s everything you need to know to fully capture what it means to spend Christmas in Sicily:
As Sicily welcomes the start of winter, travelers should expect a very mild climate settling over a majority of the large island.
Temperatures generally range from a low of 11 ̊C (52 ̊F) and a high of 16 ̊C (61 ̊F). Although the temperature grows cooler near the mountains and the more inland you travel. Some of these areas even see snow – so much so that Sicily has multiple ski resorts for travelers seeking adventure or the comfort of a White Christmas.
December is also one of the rainiest months of the year for this Mediterrean island, and travelers should expect more clouds than sun. But don’t be deterred, the gloom of the sky is brightened by the festivities of the cities, towns and villages.
Christmas in Sicily is more a celebration of tradition, family and religion rather than gifts and Santa Claus. And there’s so much proud heritage and history to celebrate and experience that Sicilians begin the festivities on the 8th of December, the official start of the festive season in Sicily – be sure to not miss everything it has to offer for a curious tourist!
Feast of the Immaculate Conception
And why specifically the 8th of December? In Sicily, this is the feast day of the Immaculate Conception or also known as the L’Immacolata Concezione in Italian. It’s a public holiday dedicated and celebrated in the name of the Virgin Mary.
This very day is when the hibernating villages, towns and cities bloom into a wonderland of elaborate decorations, looming pine trees, bustling knick-knack markets and alluring smells that come from the popular stalls selling actual roasted chestnuts. It’s a storybook come to life, and Christmas is the main character.
Novena di Natale
Novena di Natale is a traditional celebration for local children that goes from the 16th of December until Christmas Eve.
Children across Sicily and Italy sing carols, light candles and read scripture in dedication to Santo Natale. During this time the architecturally prominent cathedrals that decorate much of Sicily are turned into an everflowing stream of choir music, celebration and community – and a must-see site.
While Christmas in Sicily is so much more than one day, Sicilians still mark their calendars on the 25th of December for the Nativity celebration.
And while Christmas for Sicilians means religion, celebration and tradition, it also means a visit from Lady Befana. Instead of Santa Claus, Lady Befana rides on her broomstick to make sure the nice kids are rewarded with gifts, and the naughty are given sticks. Although this doesn’t actually happen until the 6th of January during Epiphany.
Epiphany celebrates the manifestation of Christ on the 6th of January, and a visit from old Lady Befana.
This is when children leave their shoes and stockings out, locals attend long masses and families spend time together.
Epiphany also signifies the end of the long Christmas celebration.
New Year’s Eve
For Italians and Sicilians, New Year’s Eve honors the Feast of St. Sylvester with an extravagant dinner called a cenone.
A cenone is a lengthy multi-course dinner that happens in unison with a celebration for the Roman Emperor Constantine I’s conversion into Christianity, which at the time was seen as very dangerous, but brave because at that point of time in history Christians were still being persecuted for their beliefs.
In addition to copious amounts of Sicilian plates and flowing wine, families partake in the Bay of Gela tradition. The Bay of Gela happens when you eat coin-shaped lentils at every stroke of midnight, which symbolises the start of a new year, new beginnings and good luck for the future.
And in typical Italian fashion, Christmas in Sicily is very much marked by heavenly smells, extravagant meals and Sicilian specialities. Even more so, the most important cenone or meals of the year occur on Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve.
Imagine tables, food stalls and restaurants overflowing with strands of freshly made pasta, delectable pieces of fresh seafood and chunks of melt in your mouth cakes that only come around once a year. Plus, don’t forget the bruschetta, canapes, arancini and those fried bread dough dumplings!
Each meal has a plethora of courses, the first one starting with antipasti and appetisers like fried bread dough dumplings and canapes. Then the second course welcomes pasta, naturally. Imagine all the pasta, including lasagna, farfalle and tagliatelle, doused in simply perfect sauces just barely bubbling over your plate.
And the main course is normally a fish variety caught fresh and bought in bulk just for the occasion. Sicily is known for its sardines, swordfish, bluefin tuna, prawns and so on.
With other courses mixed in, the meal is washed down with local wine and dessert – it wouldn’t be an Italian holiday without it.
Where to Go
So where should you go to take in the traditions and feast upon everything Sicily has to offer during Christmas?
You most certainly can’t go wrong with wherever you choose as the entire island embraces the Christmas spirit. But these places will make you fall in love with Sicily and Christmas.
Taormina is a historic city nestled between the roar of the ocean and the curious eye of Mount Etna where you can immerse yourself in one of the most elaborate Christmas celebrations across the island.
This city pulls out all the stops with ongoing events and activities throughout the month. Dedicated to tradition, this city’s medieval maze comes alive with orchestra concerts and ensembles, parades and live nativity scene productions.
While you’re here, you have to visit the Presepe Vivente, one of the most authentic and intricate nativity scenes. Community members literally dress up and act out culture and history before your very eyes. And watch the Carretti Siciliani careen through town as vibrant carriages weave a story of Sicily’s crafting history and heritage. Then observe the lighting of the Christmas bonfire right near the Duomo di Taormina.
Visiting Taormina during Christmas is one of the most authentic cultural experiences you can find across the world.
Catania is the mecca for architectural beauty, especially during Christmas when the Baroque style churches put on their Sunday best.
During this time of year, Catania lights up Sicily’s east coast with a sweeping show of beauty, religion and tradition. While not as flashy as Taormina, Catania’s sparkling allure comes from its simplistic, but festive touches, and the impressively tall tree before the Catania Cathedral.
And if you’re more curious about Sicily’s Christmas history and religious significance, then Catania is the place for questions, answers and discovery as you can find prayer altars, nativity scenes and reenactments scattered throughout the winding streets and obscured alleys.
Plus, Catanis is home to an incredible celebration for the Feast of the Immaculate Virgin Mary.
Trapani overflows with Christmas magic just as the hills marking this area roll with the flow of the nearby waves.
Every day there is some kind of celebration parading through this city, and neighboring villages and towns. With a backdrop of intricately decorated squares, castles and churches, Trapani is pure and idyllic during the Christmas time.
And there are handmade nativity scenes at practically every corner for you to admire and appreciate it.
If you’re not interested in staying in a city but want the jubilance and festivities of Trapani then stay in nearby Erice, a medieval town just as dedicated to the Christmas spirit.
Europe is famous for its Christmas Markets, and Palermo, Sicily’s capital, is one of the best places to visit to find your Christmas spirit.
In general, markets in Italy are overflowing with goods and extravagance, but add the benefit of holiday joy and celebration, and you get a bucket list worthy experience. And Palermo is certainly worth it. Entire squares are lit up throughout the month with bustling booths selling handmade toys and crafts, traditional street food and goods that will only add to your Christmas celebration and feast.
Plus, the Christmas season opens the door to the Sicilian opera season, and Palermo has one of the largest theatres in all of Europe. An escape from the cooler winter and a chance to immerse yourself in Sicilian culture, a trip to the Teatro Massimo is just another reason to find yourself in Palermo during Christmas.
Visiting Sicily during Christmas will be an idyllic experience of beauty, tradition and culture, plus a little bit of magic. But here are some tips to keep you in the Christmas spirit during your travels:
First things first, what to pack? Usually suitcases traveling to Sicily are filled with swimming costumes and beach reads, but when it starts to look a lot like Christmas in Sicily, it would be best if you were prepared for cooler temperatures and a bit of rain. While layers are always crucial for those unseasonable days, also be sure to pack a warmer rain-resistant jacket with some insulation and an umbrella. If you’re going to ski or explore Mount Etna, don’t forget a heavier winter coat and the rest of your ski or snowboard essentials. But most importantly, don’t forget the green and red accessories of Christmas!
Also, it’s important to plan out your Sicilian holiday a bit more as December and early January mark multiple national holidays across Sicily, and Italy too. Businesses and popular tourist attractions will generally be closed or shorten their hours on these days, so before you go just confirm online.
Although a trip to Sicily during Christmas is bucket list worthy, this time of the year generally sees less foot traffic, quieter streets and rarely crowds. So, while you should be sure to confirm hours on holidays, this is the best time of year to experience Sicily in a more personalised way. Be prepared for shorter lines, less crowds and good prices!
If you only have a limited amount of time in Sicily during the holidays, you have to make sure you experience a traditional cenone or meal where your plate will be overflowing with Sicilian delicacies for hours. But to make sure this happens, find a restaurant and make a reservation as soon as possible so you don’t miss out on one of Italy’s quintessential food experiences!
If you’re visiting Sicily for Christmas, you’ll find plenty of holiday spirit and things to see and do. Between the Christmas markets, religious traditions and festive atmosphere, you’ll fall even deeper in love with this winter holiday. Christmas doesn’t always have to be spent at home so if you’re interested in doing something different this year, plan a trip to Sicily.