Traditionally, Milan’s festive season kicks off in the second week of December. Last weekend, aka Il Ponte, marked its start. That is because that week boasts two religious holidays: Sant’Ambrogio (patron saint of Milan) on December 7th, and the Immacolata, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, on the 8th. Being two consecutive dates, it is easy to mould them into a longer holiday, which in Italian is called fare il ponte (making a bridge). So how do the Milanese celebrate the holiday season? Here are 10 great ways to get into the Christmas spirit and celebrate Christmas like a real Milanese.
1. Take advantage of the Ponte and leave for a Settimana Bianca
Settimana bianca is how Italians call a skiing holiday. The ponte di Sant’Ambrogio is traditionally the first occasion to leave the city for the ski slopes. Back in the 80s and 90s, the golden age of Milan, every Milanese worthy of the name owned a holiday home in Courmayeur, Cortina or Saint Moritz. Today, new generations own fewer holiday houses but haven’t stopped skiing. That’s why airb&b is thriving even on the Alps!
2. Enjoy Bombardino on the ski slopes
Bombardino is the traditional shot Italian skiers drink to warm themselves up between runs. It is made of Vov (an egg-based liqueur) and is served hot with whipped cream on top. The perfect way to boost your energy even on the coldest of days!
3. Decorate the Christmas tree on your return
Traditionally, the Milanese decorate their houses for Christmas during the Sant’Ambrogio weekend. Nowadays, almost everyone has some kind of Christmas tree in their house. Historically though, Italians celebrate the Nativity with a crèche. The representations of the birth of Jesus can be made with hundreds of tiny statues and even a fully-fledged theatrical set with waterfalls, fairy lights and moving parts. If you want to build a proper Italian crèche, don’t forget that baby Jesus must only be placed in the manger on Christmas Day!
4. Enjoy caldarroste in Piazza Duomo
Roast chestnuts, or caldarroste, are the typical wintery street snack of Milan. Strolling around in Piazza Duomo, you may notice that there are small food stalls at every street corner. They sell sweets, drinks and paper cones full of steamy chestnuts. A must in the cold season!
5. Browse the Milanese Christmas Markets: the Oh Bej! Oh Bej!
The Oh Bej! Oh Bej! are the traditional Christmas markets of Milan. The food and crafts stalls have stood around the edge of the Castello Sforzesco and Parco Sempione each year for more than 500 years! This year, from December 5th to the 8th you will find florists and artisans, prints and books sellers, clothes stalls and plenty of toys and balloons.
6. Buy the right Panettone
The favourite dessert of the Milanese during this time of the year is undeniably the Panettone. The word “panettone” derives from the Italian word panetto, a small loaf cake. In 1919, Angelo Motta revolutionised the traditional panettone, giving it its tall domed shape by making the dough rise three times, for almost 20 hours, before cooking, giving it its now-familiar light texture. The historical Milanese pasticceria where you can buy a traditional Panettone to make a bella figura (a good impression) with your Italian friends is Cova, via Montenapoleone, 8. Panettone (or Pandoro, the version without candied fruit) is usually served with a mascarpone cream of which you can find the recipe here. Otherwise you can also try the German version that we collected in our international recipes here.
7. Drink some Vin Brulé in the churchyard after the Christmas Eve mass, listening to the Zampognari
A religious tradition in Italy is to attend the midnight mass on Christmas Eve. Traditionally, it is a very special mass, with a choir singing Christmas songs and a live Nativity scene. At the end of the mass, people usually linger outside the church to exchange wishes and toasts. Vin Brulé -spiced wine- and the traditional Panettone are usually served in exchange for a small offering. If you are lucky there might also be a group of bagpipers playing the Christmas carols (aka the Zampognari).
8. Lose money while playing Mercante in fiera
Every Milanese kid has played Mercante in Fiera (Merchant at the Fair) at least once in their life. This card game is very popular in Italy, especially during Christmas time. We won’t try to explain it here, firstly because there are already some pretty decent English guides online and secondly because half of the fun comes from your tipsy Italian friends trying to teach it to you!
9. Dress up for a Christmas concert in Brera
Every year, the Accademia musicale di Brera performs a concert of Christmas songs. A must-do for anyone wanting to enjoy a Christmas-themed night out in one of the fanciest districts in town.
10. Ice skate in Gae Aulenti
Spend an afternoon ice skating with the kids in between the Milanese skyscrapers in Gae Aulenti Square.
These were our ten ways to celebrate Christmas like a true Milanese! We hope you enjoyed reading them. Merry Christmas from the team at Eurologos-Milano.