SARONNO, Italy - The first Christmas I spent in Italy was in Rome. I was studying Italian and living in an apartment near the Spanish Steps. Throughout the city, shops and streets were decorated like sparkling jewels and even though it wasn’t cold and there was no snow, the feeling of Christmas was in the air.
In Piazza Mignanelli, the small piazza next to the Spanish Steps, there was a tall statue of the Virgin Mary with a low fence around it. Under the statue there were many presents, all wrapped in colorful Christmas paper.
On the afternoon of December 8th, the Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception, Pope John Paul II made an appearance in the piazza. With him were the Cardinal Vicar of Rome, the Mayor and a large contingency of firemen. And a lot of people. After the blessing, the firemen placed a wreath of flowers on the head of the statue of the Virgin Mary. The gifts were collected and I suppose distributed to the city’s poor, or given to Catholic charities. I only spoke a few words of Italian at the time, so it wasn’t as if I understood what was happening. But what was obvious was that the Pope’s visit and the distribution of gifts was a long standing Roman tradition.
In the Piazza Navona the Christmas market was in full swing. All around the oval piazza there were stands selling Christmas trinkets and toys and cakes and candy, including traditional Torrone and the dreaded black lumps of candy coal that the Befana puts in the stockings of naughty boys and girls on January 6th. There were things for grown-ups too, but it was the sound of kids laughing and squealing with joy that filled the air during that Roman Christmas.
During the Christmas holidays families go from church to church to see the nativity scenes. What I loved the most in Rome was watching parents and grandparents squat down in front of a nativity scene, and in a whisper, explain to the kids the real meaning of Christmas. Sometimes it would be an older brother or sister doing the explaining, and once the little ones understood what they were looking at, they quickly became nativity connoisseurs, comparing the nativity in front of them with others they had seen.
Christmas in Italy is a religious holiday, spent with family and friends, warm and comforting in the knowledge that you are with those who mean the most to you. It isn’t customary to send Christmas cards, people telephone instead and every conversation starts with Auguri, and ends with Buone Feste. And I wish the same to all of you. Auguri, Buone Feste and Merry Christmas.
Photo: Adorazione dei Pastori by Giovan Gerolamo Savoldo