Little Saint Nick
One of the many benefits we had fantasized about living in Italy year round was a more joyful, less commercial Christmas experience than the one we had come to know in the U.S. As our children have grown, we have found ourselves feeling less and less compelled to seek Christmas-y perfection in the form of a profusion of gifts and a series of parties. Instead, we longed for a more deeply felt holiday season. What better venue to look for meaning than Italy, where family and food are the highest priorities?
So it is with some regret that I share the following: American-style Christmas giving and receiving is alive and well in southern Italy. From the Immacolata (December 8th, the day that Mary is venerated for her own holy status) right through to the Befana (January 6th, the day that good Italian children receive gifts in their shoes from a kind old lady who is forever searching for the newly-born baby Jesus), Italian towns prepare for the festivities in grand style. Streets and storefronts are draped in lights, wreaths and all manner of Santa Clauses. Nativity scenes both grand and miniature spring up in churches, alleyways and grottoes. Municipalities plan an endless series of Christmas events involving caroling, concerts and Christmas craft fairs. The traditional Christmas cake of northern Italy, panettone, makes an appearance in every conceivable permutation. And gift buying is every bit as frenzied as it is in the Mall of America.
This year, the town hall of Martina Franca decided it was a good idea to broadcast Christmas music from speakers mounted strategically throughout the centro storico. The music begins at 10:00 a.m., blasting its final number for the day at 10:00 p.m. or so. Lovely, right? Oddly, the music is entirely American, with a particular bias towards the Beach Boys’ Little Saint Nick and Elvis Presley’s Christmas hits of years gone by. And it’s really, really loud, easily penetrating the meter-thick stone walls of our home. We’ve now memorized the music track in its entirety and can sing along, without interruption, through its mind-numbing loop.
Still, there is no less focus on food and family today than there must have been a hundred years ago. Christmas Eve is a food-shopping bacchanalia that begins early and peaks late. Extended families assign cooking duties to spread the responsibility around, but it’s all carefully choreographed to maintain the quality and integrity of the feast. Excessive? Absolutely, but deeply rooted in tradition. Not so long ago here, meat was hard to come by and eaten only twice a year at Christmas and Easter, so even in a time when Italians are concerned about their own financial futures, Christmas represents a time to celebrate a period of relative prosperity. Hence the appeal of Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of nearby Bari and beloved figure to children everywhere.
It seems that Saint Nicholas, born of a wealthy Greek merchant family in what is now modern-day Turkey, is best known for his anonymous gifts to young people in need. Legend has it that a man with three daughters was distraught about their prospects for marriage because he couldn’t afford to offer dowries to prospective suitors. Saint Nicholas, in his understated way, disguised himself and filled the socks the daughters had left drying before the fire one night with gold, ensuring a happy ending for the family. Now children around the world are similarly hopeful, although somewhat less likely to be securing their own marriages with the bounty they receive.
Saint Nicholas now rests in a crypt in Bari, and is typically depicted holding three golden balls that symbolize his gifts to the three fortunate young women. Could these balls be precursors to modern-day ornaments? No doubt St. Nick is perplexed by the strange twists and turns that have morphed him into a red-suited elf who travels the world distributing gifts in one night, entering and exiting millions of homes through their chimneys. He would surely have loved the splendid Christmas feasts in Italy, though.