(by clicking on the pictures you can see a larger image)
We are having an Italian Christmas. Not a Canadian Italian Christmas, but a real Roman Italian Christmas. Luigi has been eyeing up all the "only in Italy and only at Christmas" treats appearing in all the markets. Stuffed turkey is out, pasta fresca, Italian cheeses, Italian meats are in. Black Magic chocolates are out, Italian Torrone, and a mind boggling series of various sweets, chocolates, etc. are in. Oh, and I can't forget the Panettone (it drives Luigi crazy when I call it "cake"). They started appearing in the stores in late November, mountains of boxed Panettone, from the traditional one to those filled with cream, chocolate, etc., on every store aisle.
Here Christmas does not seem to be as commercialized as it is at home. We have not noticed Christmas "deals" ads on store windows, and the streets are not full of people carrying bags and bags of "presents" or scurrying to get last minute deals. Rather, it seems like people are carrying on their life as usual. As they walk along the brightly lit streets, they wonder at the City of Rome Christmas decor, they try to get pictures while dodging each other, parents show their kids various Nativity scenes, and everyone marvels at the beauty of it all …… "guarda, guarda … che bello!" ("look, look, how beautiful) echo everywhere.
Luigi says: "it is different, but still not much has changed over 37 years. Definitely more lights and more fancily designed decorations made possible by the digital world we live in, people wear different up-to-date clothing, and one can hear among the spoken Italian many other unknown languages. But the atmosphere is exactly the same." Christmas day in Italy is still mostly a core family affair (not necessarily with relatives!) and the sharing of presents is not a big deal as it is at home (likely that is changing as well).
Christmas trees are not a big tradition, and never have been, at least not in homes. Who wants to haul a tree up 4 flights of stairs, taking up space where the precious stacks of various Panettoni sit? Besides, it is more entertaining to walk down Via Condotti, or Via del Corso or head to the Colosseum or Piazza Venezia to get a Christmas tree fix. One can do that while enjoying the hustle and bustle of thousands and thousands of people out for a walk, looking in brightly lit and fully decorated store windows, from Gucci and Prada to the more mundane. The trees that decorate the streets of historic Rome are all brightly lit and are big enough for everyone. But, one of the trees that gets the most attention, 82 ft. tall, came all the way from the Ukraine, a gift from the Ukraine community, and sits in the middle of St. Petter's Square. I happened to wander there last Friday to witness what appeared to be a tree unveiling by the president of Ukraine and dignitaries of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
Living in a small apartment on the 4th floor was not going to stop us from having a Christmas tree. There are a few real trees for sale in Rome, but they are mostly used outside shops and buildings. A few may make into homes. But most of the affordable "trees" we saw for sale were what appeared to be cast-offs from a decorating scheme gone bad. Purple trees, shiny foil trees, every colour tree. We settled on a small real tree in a pot. After we decorated our potted plant tree, placed it on the shelf next to the Panettone and the Torrone…. it's beginning to look a lot like Christmas (Italian style)…….
There are two more trees that I must tell you about located at the main train station Termini. Not because of their size, although they are huge (20 plus feet), it is the message(s) they exhibit. You see, they are "letter" trees, meaning, anyone can write a letter to Babbo Natale (Father Christmas) asking for, well, whatever they need. One heartfelt letter reads " Caro Babbo Natale, A me non manca nula, se puoi porta una gamba nuova alla mia nonna ~ signed Michele (Dear Father Christmas, I don't need anything. If you can, bring one new leg to my Grandma). Another sad letter written by a mother of a sick child asks for help in finding a diagnosis. Then, there are also the letters asking for a new boyfriend "this time a decent one".
Christmas markets (Mercatini di Natale) have sprouted up around here like mushrooms (Luigi's comment). The large market in Piazza Navona started on November 26 and will continue until January 6th. It is the go-to market if you want to build your own Nativity scene (cresche), or a whole village for that matter. It's all there. A few vendors have Christmas tree decorations. The rest cater mostly to kids that love toys, candies or to win stuffed toys at the games. There is even a merry-go-round in the centre of the Piazza. I had my first Ciambella there. Another "only in Rome and only at Christmas" treat, that can be covered by sugar or Nutella. It resembles a giant mini doughnut, warmed in a panini press (of course).
One day we decided to venture further and explore the Christmas mercatino at San Giovanni. Thank goodness that market is not too close to us… it's full of the best of Italian cheeses which we couldn't resist.
Trees may be hard to find, but Nativity scenes, creches, are in almost every church (now, that's a lot of creches!). We found one in the hallway of a church near the Pantheon, St. Eustachio Basilica. It was a remake of the life in the church square in the 1700's, accurately recreated based on old prints and drawings. It was complete with the neighbouring Tabacchi shop, the forno (bakery), and other life images of the time.
If we weren't yet in the Christmas spirit (Italian style), last night put us there. Music was filtering through our apartment shutters so we decided to put on our coats, grab the camera and investigate. Wow! Just around the corner, in Piazza Trilussa, in the heart of Trastevere, in a very busy Rome, there was a live re-enactment of the Nativity, complete with live sheep and even a donkey! We arrived in the square just in time to witness the wise men (in very professional looking costumes) arriving with their gifts. While Luigi ran around snapping pictures, I enjoyed the Christmas songs sang by a choir of children and adults. As I stood in the cobblestone square and looked around the crowd, I could see many lit candles swaying to the music. What a beautiful evening in Trastevere.
We would like to end our Christmas post with this song http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nut0lgTdXn8, Chestnuts roasting on an open fire. The warm, freshly roasted chestnut vendors are everywhere in Rome. Who can resist warm, roasted chestnuts while strolling down centuries old, cobblestone streets, lit by 21st century digital Christmas lights! And with this we wish you all a Buon Natale e un Felice Anno Nuovo!