My first year in Rome ended with a Christmas I'll never forget. It was so different from New York: no holiday decorations, Christmas tree lots, big splashy store displays, people loaded down with shopping bags filled with gaily-wrapped packages... No indication, as far as I could see, that it was getting close to December 25th.
"But what do Italians do at Christmas time?" I complained to my friend. "Does anyone in this land of Catholics celebrate the holidays?" When he insisted that they did, I said, "Well then, where are the Christmas lights...tinsel hanging from street lamps...colored lights strung overhead across the streets...Santa Clauses in the stores? Where, for heaven's sake, are the sweet-smelling pine trees, the wreaths?"
Smiling mysteriously, my friend took me to see.
First we went to the church of Sant'Andrea delle Valle, where he walked me down a side aisle to an utterly charming presepio (nativity scene) on display. It was plain, simple, and very moving. Dozens of tiny figures told the story, each piece hand-carved in great detail with care and love. They were all there, Baby Jesus in the manger, Mary, Joseph, the Wise Men, camels, shepherds and their flocks. Several families tiptoed in and came to stand alongside us. They stared at the scene, their faces rapt, the eyes of their children filled with wonder.
It was the same in several other churches my friend took me to: each had its own individual presepio, expressing the same idea but displayed differently. How ancient these nativity scenes seem, I thought; they've probably been on display for centuries of Christmases.
Walking along the street past restaurants and stores, my friend pointed out little signs saying Buon Natale in their windows. I hadn't noticed before because there was nothing aggressive about the signs, just a simple wish for a "Merry Christmas." He said that Italian children didn't receive gifts on Christmas morning. The time for presents for the little ones was epifania (Epiphany, January 6th).
Next we entered my favorite place in Rome, Piazza Navona, and I was stunned to see it had been completely transformed: booths and stands lined the huge oval piazza and hundreds of people were milling around. And there, having his picture taken with various bambini, I finally spotted Babbo Natale (Father Christmas)! True, he was rather skinny and slight, but he was undoubtedly old St. Nick. In the middle of the piazza was an enormous presepio with life-sized wooden figures grouped around a smiling Baby Jesus. Mothers and fathers, their demeanor reverent and respectful, quietly explained the scene to their ooohing and aaahing children.
The stands we strolled by were owned mostly, my friend explained, by people who lived in the outlying towns around Rome. They had been coming there each Christmas season for years and years, to sell handmade handkerchiefs, laces and sweaters; hand-carved chessboards and tiny, perfectly detailed presepio figures; home-baked cakes and biscotti. Some vendors were making candy, right on the spot: toffee and nut-filled torrone (nougat). The heady smell of roasting chestnuts filled the air. Men hunching over tiny stoves handed out the delicious hot morsels, wrapped in cones of torn newspaper.
During the more than 20 years I lived in Rome, I came to prefer the uncommercial Italian way of celebrating Christmas. Of course, things change with time...what doesn't? Many stands sell cheap, plastic toys and items of poor quality at Piazza Navona's yearly fair. Christmas trees are on sale nowadays; Italians have taken to putting them up and decorating them with tinsel and lights. Some even exchange presents on December 25th.
But much remains the same. The traditional Christmas Eve dinner is still meatless: fish and seafood prepared as a soup and/or a stew or simply fried, accompanied by assorted veggies. The next day, close friends and relatives go to each other's houses for a massive dinner that often begins with antipasti and pasta with a walnut cream sauce and ends with sweets and panettone Christmas cake, all accompanied by wine and spumante (Italian champagne). After strong, dark espresso, everyone young and old plays tombola (Bingo), and then card games, usually poker for pennies. Later, the ladies reset the table and those who not five hours before said they'd never eat another thing come gladly back to the dining room, ready to take the plunge yet again.
Yes, Italians certainly do celebrate Christmas. I can't imagine how I ever thought differently.