The Christmas season commences!
In the United States, the Christmas season begins with Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, when the malls are bombarded with shoppers in search of the ideal gifts to set under the Christmas tree. A trip to any American suburb during this season will enchant you with visions of illuminated reindeer about to take flight, penguins who pop in and out of igloos, Santas who climb alongside of homes and lights in all colors that line every surface. It is a glorious sight which never fails to excite.
Americans know Christmas since, afterall, America invented it. I am not referring to the religious aspects of the holiday but to the sad fact that Christmas has become the most commercial holiday in history and America is quite responsible. I even know of a few Jewish people in New York City, who have Christmas trees up every year next to their Menorah, not due to any confusion but simply to share in the fun.
Christmas is so widely celebrated that it no longer feels religious at all. When people talk about Christmas, the topic is mostly about what they want to get, their days off from work, decorating their homes and hoping for snow as the finishing touch. Enjoying the excess commercialism of this holiday, however, does not mean that the religious aspects are not heartfelt, one’s decorations do not measure one’s sentiment.
Although I adore New York City’s Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree, Macy’s windows, the musical snowflakes at Sak’s Fifth Avenue and Cartier’s ribbon-tied exterior, I have enjoyed the Christmas season in several other countries as well.
The world has seen what Christmas is like in America through Hollywood’s eyes but what I experienced around Europe was completely unexpected, especially in Rome.
Christmas throughout Europe…
Germany wins for my pick as Europe’s best place to spend Christmas. Starting as early as November, Christkindlmarkt, quickly infuses you with the Christmas spirit. These Christmas markets pop up in every town throughout Germany. The vendors set up shop in pine-covered stands complete with white Christmas lights. It feels more traditional than commercial. The aroma of Glühwein, hot mulled wine with spices, fills the air and mixes with the scent of freshly baked Lebkuchen and Magenbrot, which are forms of gingerbread. Handmade crafts are usually for sale, while smiles and good wishes are always free.
I had expected to see similar markets in Scandinavia as well, but was disappointed to learn that Christmas activities were not as extravagant as in Germany. On December 6th, we were told that Swedish children celebrate Saint Nicholas Day by leaving a shoe out to be filled with candy. We did this at our hotel and someone’s shoe got stolen. The rest of us, however, found ours filled with sweets. I have since learned that this is a Dutch tradition so either our director had been confused or having been in the south, the tradition had crossed the border.
On December 13th Sweden celebrates Saint Lucia, which has nothing to do with Christmas but is a beautiful celebration that helps usher it in. Girls with crowns of lit candles visit while singing songs dedicated to the saint who will save you from the darkness and bring you light.
Our cast had been invited to dinner at an all-male university. We were asked to sit at the empty tables but to leave one seat empty on each side. Then the students filled in, thus creating the perfect environment to socialize. We were treated to an array of Swedish specialties and finished it off with some warm Glögg, a mulled wine with slivered almonds and raisins. The evening ended with the choir of girls crowned with white candles and our entire cast singing along.
Christmas in Paris was glorious but Paris is so breathtakingly beautiful that it would not matter what season it was. Switzerland, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Norway and Holland fell somewhere along the line between Sweden and Germany.
A Roman Christmas…
When you come from a country that exudes Christmas from every pore, you imagine that Christmas in Rome will be the best of all. Since Rome is where the Vatican and the seat of Catholicism lies, it must be amazing. I was never more disappointed than when Christmastime came my first year in Rome. I think New York City shows more hoopla for Palm Sunday than Rome does for Christmas.
Christmas lights are so few that they are outshone by billboards. Although more pop up every year, Christmas tress are almost non-existent or hidden in private homes. No Santas, nor candy-canes, no carolers, no wreaths, nor anything that reminds you of Christmas. It is surprising until you stop and think about what Christmas is about. Just take one moment to realize why we celebrate.
Christmas is really about the birth of Jesus. Regardless of whether you believe in Jesus or not, the holiday began with the celebration of his birth. The leading role in this show is not Santa Claus, Frosty nor Rudolph. These are merely characters who have upstaged the lead. Once you realize that, you will begin to notice the many Nativity scenes all around Italy and consequently understand. Perhaps you had not noticed them since they are not neon. As America continues to influence Italy, more lights and Christmas trees will appear, but the Nativity scene remains as Italy’s main focus.
Many towns in Italy feature a live Nativity scene during the festivities. If you visit Naples, you will find the most extensive and whimsical collection of Nativity scenes that you could have ever imagined. Some are so ridiculously intricate and exaggerated that you can barely locate the manger.
The nativity scene is called a presepe in Italian and in Naples they even include the neighbors. Some versions include the entire town: the local pizzaiolo, the town baker, the village cobbler and the stereotypical dramatic caricatures of the historical people of Naples and even modern-day celebrities.
Christmas in Italy is not flashy like Las Vegas. Of course, this makes Italy look a bit drab and dreary during Christmastime so you may prefer to take your Italian vacation in the summer instead. The reason you will not find many lights, Christmas trees, candy canes, snowmen nor wreaths is because those are Northern European traditions. America has merely adopted all of them and gone full throttle. Although Santa Clause is called Babbo Natale in Italy, children are more excited about La Befana, which is a witch who fills their stockings with candy or coal on the Epiphany. In Rome, Piazza Navona transforms itself into a gaudy Christmas market that resembles Halloween with all the candy and witches flying around. There are also many vendors selling nativity accessories and stocking stuffers.
This market is not as exciting as the those in Germany, but there are some entertaining moments that make up for it. On the Epiphany, many piazzas around Italy feature La Befana, who flies in on her broom from the tallest church tower, sprinkling the people below with chocolate and candy.
The Roman Christmas spirit…
The streets of Italy overfill with Italians who continue to conduct their evening strolls even in the brisk weather. If you join them, their Christmas cheer will keep you warm as will the best hot chocolate you have ever tasted. Stop into any bar and order yourself a cup of ciocolata calda. It is so dense it resembles hot chocolate pudding. In fact, I think it is chocolate pudding served hot in a coffee cup. Christmas in Rome is subtle but still manages to charm. If you open your eyes to the spirit of Christmas, you will certainly feel it.
Dysfunction for everyone!
While Christmas decorations may be sparse in Italy, Christmas superficiality still exists, for no country is ever immune. Due to the lack of decent return policies, Italians who have tired of getting stuck with horrible gifts have come up with the most superficial idea to top them all.
Some Italians will purchase gifts for themselves, wrap them up, put them next to the Nativity scene or under the tree and tell their relatives how much it cost so they can get the money from them. This is not common practice among Italians but everyone here knows someone who does this, making it common enough. As return policies improve, this practice may disappear altogether.
T’was the night before Christmas…
The majority of Italians might not make it to midnight mass but many still go. Italians are very family oriented and although dysfunctional families do exist, they still get together at every opportunity. Italians celebrate Christmas in varying ways depending on their region of origin. My friends from Venice celebrate it with a dinner on Christmas Day. In Rome and anywhere in the South of Italy, Christmas is first celebrated on December 24th with a dinner consisting of seafood only. Then some will go to midnight mass while others will open their gifts instead. A meat-based lunch will follow on December 25th and visits to family members will continue until the 26th, which includes a huge intake of delicious food.
The Perfect Gift
Everyone feels Christmas differently and the important thing is to feel something. I find Christmas to be an occasion to give a gift that shows how much you have thought of them. It does not matter how much it costs, but I put a lot of thought into each gift so each person will know that they matter to me. I make special dishes and fill them with love. I artistically wrap each gift in such an elaborate way that no one ever wants to open it at all, but curiosity always wins out. For me, it is about being with my loved ones and showing them how much I care. If I am far away, I spend it with the closest people I have and show my gratitude.
The most disappointing gifts I have ever received were the ones where no thought was put into it. One of the times I was most touched by a thoughtful gift was when my boyfriend’s mother gave me a dress. It was not the dress that made my day but how she chose it. When I told her how shocked I was that it fit so perfectly, she said, “I found a sales girl with your figure. I told her I was looking for a dress for my daughter-in-law so she tried on numerous dresses until I found one I liked.” The dress has become one of the best gifts I have ever received, simply because of all the thought that went into it.
One year, my boyfriend’s uncle mentioned that he wanted a new painting for his recently refurbished apartment. He pointed to one in a restaurant and I mentioned how easy it would be to make. It had obviously been based on Mondrian, with its typical De Stijl style. He held me to it and so I painted my own version of it. My boyfriend chipped in with the supplies as well as some creative input and I did all the rest. It became the most creative Christmas gift I have ever given. He was so happy with it that he asked for another for his birthday.
A home away from home…
I cannot wait for Christmas this year. I look forward to seeing my boyfriend’s family who are so vivacious and full of personality. His friends have also become my friends after many summer days spent together sailing along the Amalfi coast. Christmas in Naples is never boring with all the fun-loving people, wonderful food and amusingly animated Nativity scenes. Although it never really feels like Christmas to me, it is still enjoyable.
Americans today come from so many different backgrounds and religions that many different festivities coincide such as Hanukkah, Kwanza, the Winter Solstice and many more. I still prefer our ridiculously over-the-top American Christmas but I think Italians put it best when they say, il mondo è bello perché é vario…the world is beautiful because it is varied. So no matter how you celebrate this season, I wish you all a lot of joy this season and in the coming year.