Christmas and Epiphany in Italy
We spent a week in Katia’s hometown, Mottola, over Christmas seeing family and friends. It was wonderful being back in southern Italy. It’s a timeless land: the town traces its civilization back to ancient Greece, and they recently uncovered an old Greek wall dating from 500 BC. And things still change very slowly there. The same people are still working in the same places year after year: the same cashiers, gas station attendants and shopowners. Once people get jobs, they never leave them. There is no turnover, because there are no jobs to turn over to. The economy is in tatters in Italy – especially the south – and the crisi (economic crisis) is always a topic of conversation. Nevertheless, people somehow manage to get by, and some even seem to enjoy life despite being unemployed or underemployed.
Christmas is a special time here in Italy. By mid-November, I realized why the Church decided to put the liturgical season during the winter solstice. Of course it was done to supplant the pagan holiday dedicated to the god, Sol Invictus (Unconquerable Sun) after the Romans converted to Christianity. But now I experienced firsthand what it’s like to live through a period of very little light. The sun rises at about 7:30, and it is dark already by 4:00. Most of November and December was foggy, rainy, and cloudy, and we didn't see sun for almost an entire month. It was awful. I must admit that looking forward to 12 days of the “season of lights” gave me something to hope for during the “season of darkness.” The family get-togethers, playing “tombola” (similar to bingo) with neighbors, big meals, and gift-sharing really does bring a lot of joy in an otherwise crumby part of year.
During the weekend of the Immaculate Conception (here December 8 kicks off the “holiday season” much in the same way that Thanksgiving does back home), we went down to Naples to see some old friends. I met them when I first started coming to Italy in the mid-1990s. Neapolitans are truly gracious and generous people. In fact, I just heard that the New York Times recently ran an article about how people from Naples are among the most generous in the world. I haven’t read it yet, but I agree whole-heartedly. They don’t have much materially (Naples has always had chronically high unemployment), the crumbling towns around the city are infested by the mafia (known as Camorra there), and they have a horrible time getting the trash service to work properly (in part due to back-alley city contracts awarded to fictitious trash companies negotiated through the Camorra). Yet, they will give you their bedroom while they sleep on the pullout couch, feed you the best local foods (including the famous buffalo-milk mozzarella cheese; I don’t have enough space here to list the rest of the food they fed us!), spend money they don’t have taking you to museums like Pompeii, and driving you all over the city. Very good people. Shout-out for the Favicchio family of Afragola!
In Naples, they have a fantastic tradition of hand-crafted presepi (nativity scenes). We walked around the area of Spacca Napoli and San Gregorio along a street lined with stands selling and showcasing them. They place the nativity of the Christ child together with traditional scenes from their city. So you might have a baker taking bread out of the oven, someone fishing, women washing clothes or spinning yarn, a man shearing a sheep, a watermill recycling real water. The idea is that Christ’s birth is not in some faraway place, but is right here with us today. I could have looked at them for hours; I felt just as fascinated as I did when I was a boy in Toys R Us marveling at new Star Wars action figures. Very cool stuff.
The tradition goes back to St. Francis when Christmas was not such a big event liturgically in the Church. Francis, who spent so much of his time meditating and reflecting on the human life of Christ, wanted to experience the nativity more personally. So he got together some hay, a manger, some farm animals, and a young family with a baby, and “re-created” Christmas. He wanted to show God’s love for humanity and the world in special way. Today another tradition exists in many Italian towns that also do live nativity scenes. We didn’t get to see one, though, this year.
I must admit that I felt a little sadness during Christmas here in Italy. Secularization has arrived in the south – the last bastion of Catholicism here in Italy (the north secularized decades ago). I’ve seen the trend of the past twenty years I’ve been coming here. Many of the churches in Katia’s region are ornate and grandiose, but nowadays are often empty. And not just on ordinary Sundays, nowadays people are skipping Mass even on the big feast days (the excuse is they have to prepare the big lunch). On the feast of Holy Family, I went to nearby Castellaneta (the seat of the diocese) to visit a priest friend of ours. I went to the cathedral for Mass. The priest gave a powerful homily on life issues: how the family is dying out, the birthrate is dangerously low, people don’t get married anymore, and divorce is more and more prevalent. However, I couldn’t help notice that there were only about 30 or 40 people in the cathedral and the vast majority were well into retirement age. In fact, there was only one young couple in the back pushing a stroller back and forth. I can’t say if there were any conversions that morning, but I would wager that everyone in that church had numerous children, stayed married, and were faithful. I’m not sure how to say “preaching to the choir” in Italian, but that seemed like a classic example.
There is an expression in Italian: “Natale con i tuoi, capodanno con chi vuoi” (Christmas with your relatives, New Year’s with whoever you want). So we came back to Loreto for New Year's Eve (after driving back up the Adriatic Coast through an unexpected early snowfall making the autostrada slow and slick). We wanted to usher in the new year with the friars and nuns who run the retreat center next door to us. There are only three young friars working with three nuns, but they do a lot of work. And they do it well. For New Year’s, they organized an evening for young people and young families. 550 people signed up to come (however, the snow prevented about 200 people from coming). The evening consisted of group dances led by the friars and nuns, an actress who gave her witness of how she had a strong conversion experience in her life, and finally a wonderful 4-plate meal. Then, around 11:00 pm, we walked up to the Holy House and the bishop led a prayer vigil to usher in 2015. After that, I took the kids home (they were both sound asleep), and Katia stayed for some more dancing, toasting, and small fireworks display in the square in front of the basilica. It was a wonderful evening.
Oh, one last thing I appreciate about Christmas here is that it really does last 12 days until January 6, the Epiphany. All the decorations, trees, nativity scenes and lights are still up and won’t go down until after the 7th. Incidentally, that’s when kids go back to school… The kids here get in the words of Iacopo, our son, “Two Christmases.” In the middle of the night before Epiphany, la Befana (badly translated as the Christmas witch) comes into people’s homes filling their stockings with candy and presents if they are good. Her name derives from Epifania, and she is usually portrayed as an old lady riding a broomstick wearing a black shawl and is covered in soot because she enters the children's houses through the chimney. According to Italian folklore, la Befana was once visited by the three wise men who were searching for the baby Jesus. But the Befana turned them away because she was too busy cleaning. But after they left, she had a change of heart and went looking for the baby Jesus, taking her broom to help the new mother clean. However, she never found him, but she is still searching today after all these centuries. She still leaves gifts for good boys and girls because the Christ Child can be found in all children.
Bret and family