Not so long ago, most Italians still viewed Christmas as strictly a religious celebration.
We had no Christmas trees, just the presepio, or nativity scene, which not only depicted the birth of Jesus but also represented relatives and friends. So we created a village¾complete with rivers, bridges, and mountains. A few villages even had electric trains. Others had everything from faux bonfires to fishing boats, all watched over by tall, lean angels with flowing blonde hair, suspended from fishing lines over the manger.
The baby Jesus and mother Mary were also blonde and blue eyed, with pale skin and rosy cheeks.
We covered the village grounds in moss collected in the woods, a custom now now illegal in Italy and subject to a substantial fine.
It took days to build the village, which was often placed outside on the porch where snowfall brought it yuletide ambience. For our family that custom came to a halt the year someone stole my cousin Bruno’s best figurines. They were hand carved and beautifully painted down to the smallest details with glass eyes Bruno recycled from dolls. Everybody blamed it on Gypsies, but even little moi knew gypsies were too smart to stick around our town in winter. They all went south to warmer climates. We never spoke of a thief among us but kept our displays inside and locked our doors at night.
Gift exchange was done on January 6th, the day of the Epiphany, when the three wise men brought gifts to the newborn baby.
Over the years, what I have come to miss most, after my loved ones, is the midnight mass. I go to midnight mass in the States. There is always organ music and sometimes guitars and tambourines, and after mass I drag everyone to my house for hot chocolate and cookies. But something is missing. Snow, of course, but more than that, I miss the singing, the way the choir harmonized on Silent Night and the traditional Italian carols. For years I begrudged American Catholics their Jingle bells and White Christmas.
The year my mother died, I packed up my kids and went “home.” Determined to share my childhood experiences while I could. We stayed in the house my grandfather built; I slept in the bed I was born in. Everything was more or less the way I remembered it. The house had been closed up for nearly a year and was stone cold inside. The Italian hot water system was still as I remembered it: hot or cold—nothing in between, which can be quite entertaining unless you are the one in the shower.
We only had one cell phone with us and there was no TV at all. TV in Italy requires a yearly paid license. The only bathroom was down two flights of stairs from the bedrooms. It rained often while we were there and Venice was flooded. The locals didn’t mind any of it, but it was inconceivable to my American kids.
Finally, Christmas Eve arrived. We all went to mass, the kids with their cousins and I with my sisters. The church where I was baptized, took my first communion and said my marriage vows was just the way I remembered it, except now it was heated.
Toasty in my borrowed faux mink, I was giddy with anticipation. The candles were lit; the incense was burning; the flowers were beautifully arranged; Baby Jesus’s crèche was ready for midnight delivery. What could be more perfect? They even had a children’s choir.
The organ chimed those first resounding notes as goose bumps danced along my spine. The children joined in; their angelic voices raised in unison…the Italian version of Jingle Bells. NO!
When mass was over, we exchanged hugs and bade good wishes to all as we walked out through the big front doors into newly fallen snow. It muffled our footsteps and shushed our voices. The light from the church streamed through stained glass windows onto the soft white blanket creating an enchanting rainbow. We made our way over Technicolor moss to our cars and headed home to hot chocolate.
I made two decisions that night: one, I’d buy a collection of old Italian Christmas songs to take back to the United States with me; two, I’d appreciate the life I have now and keep my memories as wonderful slices of life seen through the eyes of a little girl.
Buone Feste a tutti—Happy Holidays to all.