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Little Saint Nick

Our Pugliese Christmas tree is decorated with ceramic pigne, which bring good fortune.

Our Pugliese Christmas tree is decorated with ceramic pigne, which bring good fortune.

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?

Barista Giuseppe at our local hangout, Super Bar, in Piazza Roma

Barista Giuseppe at our local hangout, Super Bar, in Piazza Roma.

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.

Tomie de Paola's The Legend of Old Befana.

Tomie de Paola’s The Legend of Old Befana.

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.

The Martina Franca City Council has ensured that we'll never get enough of the Beach Boys at Christmas time.

The Martina Franca City Council has ensured that we’ll never get enough of the Beach Boys at Christmas time.

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.

Given to the people of Bari by Russian President Putin in 2000, St. Nicholas watches over the medieval church named in his honor.

Given to the people of Bari by Russian President Putin in 2000, St. Nicholas watches over the medieval church named in his honor.

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.

Maria prepares orecchiette for the Christmas feast to come.

Maria prepares orecchiette for the Christmas feast to come.

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.

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4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ciao Catherine!

    Love your story. You know I can’t help being an editor…ad nauseam. It drives Pavel nuts. Having apologized…there’s one little thing in your otherwise perfect story. La Befana is January 6th…not December 6th. I know you know this, so it’s just a senior moment, eh? :-). My entire life is a senior moment now.

    Will be sending out Christmas greetings tomorrow. Hope you’re staying warm! We keep getting snow! I love it, actually.

    Be well and love, Nina

    December 22, 2012
    • I love your editorial tendencies, Nina–please keep it up! Thank you SO much for this catch. I’m avoiding all thoughts of the new year, which must explain my focus on December rather than January. We haven’t had any snow yet, but our neighbors tell us to expect it since this winter is a little colder than usual. Have a wonderful Christmas, St. Stephen’s Day and San Silvestro, too. Any big plans? Remember, start thinking about dates for your trip to Puglia . . .

      December 22, 2012
  2. ….and Santa Claus now lives in Rovaniemi in Finland…he gets around. I had a Christmas in Italy in 1972 and all I can remember is panetone and being very cold. Have a wonderful Christmas despite the loud music.

    December 23, 2012
    • Thanks, Debra. We are now utterly resigned to the Christmas music loop and since we are almost comatose from all of our excessive Christmas feasting, we hardly notice it anyway. We are lucking out on the weather. It’s cold, but the skies are blue and the sun is bright. Loads of fun . . . Have a safe trip to Italy!

      December 26, 2012

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