Written by Eve Aaron
Christmas is a big deal throughout Italy, and the region of Aosta Valley provides the perfect backdrop for a magical and festive celebration with its mountain towns, spectacular resorts and rustic chalets. The most famous of Aosta Valley’s Christmas splendours are the artisanal markets, including the prominent Marché Vert Noël, which is located within the archaeological area of the town’s Roman theatre. Davide Jaccod, a local tour guide, explains that “the market is relatively new, and the most touristy of them all, but beautiful for its historic location.”
“The most famous of Aosta Valley’s Christmas splendours are the artisanal markets”
The market takes place from mid-November to early January. Visitors enter between two large medieval towers and can walk along the ancient paths once part of the Roman city. Artisans display everything from candles to food products, as well as toys and trinkets made from wood or rocks from the nearby baths of Pre-Saint-Didier.
Fiera di Sant’Orso, Aosta, by Enrico Romanzi
In late January, the town of Aosta hosts the Sant’Orso Fair, which takes its name from the local church of Sant’Orso. “Locals look forward to this all year long,” says Jaccod. “It’s an event not to be missed.” Products on display are all made within the region from traditional materials ranging from wood inlay to wrought iron to soapstone and leather. The marketplace also offers up plenty of local food and wine to discover.
One of the fair’s famous symbols (and souvenirs) is a miniature clog made of wood. The church traditionally gave out warm clogs called sabot to those in need; nowadays the tradition continues in the form of these mementos.
A miniature version of the Sant’Orso Fair, Fiera di Donnas, is held on Sundays from January 15th to the 20th. This mercatino, or market, is much less chaotic as it is in the small village of Donnas, right off the strada consolare, once a strategic Roman road. Here, one can find wood products and crafts, but fine art pieces can be purchased as well including carvings, sculptures, bas-reliefs and stonework. The festival usually kicks off on a Friday, and the town’s wineries are open for tastings.
Mercatino Natale Aosta, photo by foto Enrico Romanzi
Christmas in Aosta Valley isn’t only about shopping – the region also buzzes with cultural and religious events throughout the season. Early in December, the town of Hône holds the Micòoula Festival. The celebration takes its name from micòoula, a seasonal rye bread sweetened with chestnuts, walnuts, dried figs and grapes. This treat has been enjoyed in the valley since the Middle Ages.
Hône is right down the hill from the Forte di Bard, a gorgeous 18th century fort that famously defended against Napoleon’s army in 1800. Atop the snow-covered hills, the fort makes for a dramatic setting along with the many castles throughout the valley’s landscape.
Despite the region’s bustling activity and its merriment, the spiritual aspect of Christmas is not forgotten. “Every church throughout the region, big and small, holds a midnight mass on December 24,” says Jaccod, “and those gathered step out afterwards to enjoy some panettone and wine.”
Another long-standing Christmas custom is the living presepio, or nativity scene: “The scenes are formed out of real people dressed in traditional garb, and the actors are usually locals,” explains Jaccod. “In fact, about half the population has been at one time or another an angel present at the manger,” he points out with laughter.
Indeed, the valley pulses with the Christmas spirit in every snowy corner. On December 30 and 31, local ski guides lead torch-lit processions down the slopes of various towns such as La Thuile and Courmayeur. Visitors are welcome to participate.According to Jaccod, “the tradition is a central part of the seasonal activities that take place in the region.” Streaks of light that illuminate the mountainsides are a breathtaking sight, and the lines of fire descending the slopes welcome in the new year.