Bah Humbug…che Caramella!!!! Christmas shopping. How can I even think about it when the sun is streaming in through my window? The first of December is only a few days away, and yet it doesn’t feel a bit like I should be fighting my way around the shops looking for festive things, and as for ploughing through the Christmas card list…please!
However, we have probably passed the last recommended posting date. Under Italian post it should be around August, they are not renowned for efficiency. To get myself into the festive spirit, I was tempted to go to the city of Bari in Apulia, on the opposite coast to Rome.
There in the heart of the old town is the Basilica of St. Nicholas. It was built to house the bones of St Nicholas, a 4th Century bishop of Myra, who was known for his good deeds on behalf of children. He eventually evolved into whom we know as Santa Claus.
The festive season doesn’t start in Rome until the eighth of December, the day of the Immaculate Conception. In Piazza di Spagna, there is a statue of the Virgin Mary, and it is adorned with flowers on this particular day. The main shopping streets are then covered with red carpet, and signs saying “Felice Natale” and “Auguri” start to appear in all the shop windows.
There is the “Natale Oggi” exhibition at the Fiera di Roma, with produce from all the Italian regions, suitably wrapped for the season. And, Piazza Navona fills with colourful stalls selling toys and sweets and colourful puppets for the Befana.
The Vatican places a life-size nativity scene in Piazza San Pietro, with carols piped out through loud speakers. There are smaller but equally beautiful nativity scenes to be seen in most churches, all with the classic baby in a crib setting.
From December 8th it all happens, lights, trees, manic shopping and worse queues than usual in the Post Office. Last year, my friend and I made just one stop to the Vatican post. I couldn’t afford a trip back to the UK, so all my good wishes were at the mercy of the postal system, and Vatican Post is considered more efficient than the regular service.
I made my way to Pope Post Office armed with about a hundred greetings cards, and all my parcels correctly wrapped, using glue and string, as scotch tape isn’t allowed. I paid a small fortune for my postage, and then struggled past a queue of totting idiots, dropping parcels all the way, to a safer spot where I might stick said fortune onto my envelopes.
My patience was waning, I found that I was a few stamps short, which meant facing surly staff member again. My friend by this time had completed his business at the other counter; they had refused to take his parcel because it was too heavy for them. This was not “good will to all men,” as we would have wished. I waved the two remaining packages with no stamps.
He went through the long tedious task of checking where either he or I had gone wrong. He told me I shouldn’t have bought so many items, I should have made several trips with just a few items at a time. I pointed out to him that I worked, and didn’t have the time. “I work too,” he said. “That’s debatable,” I snarled, “and anyway, you work here, very convenient for postal services.”
An American lady in the queue offered me a few kind words of support, which convinced me to write a letter of complaint against him. This sort of attitude was bad for tourism, and far from in keeping with the festive spirit. I got a prompt reply; a hand delivered letter asking for a more detailed account.
The next letter from the Popes office was marvellous. The offending office bod had been “recalled to a better fulfilment of his duty.” Splendid! Happy Christmas one and all!! With postal duties done, there was time to think about decorations and shopping. I made decorations for my local bar, out of bits of fabric and old boxes. I always was a star student in “Blue Peter”.
I made hessian stockings with red trim and the logo of the bar on each one, filling them with tissue paper and sweets and gold coins. I didn’t know that the stocking is not a Christmas thing here but for the befana on the sixth of January. They looked attractive anyway and we hung them on every hook we could find.
I made a Christmas tree from a triangular Parmesan cheese box, and covered it in tissue and miniature gift boxes. And taken form a line in a play, I prepared; “a bowl of oranges stuck all about with cloves, their spicy scent filling the air and milling with the wood smoke, to be the very aroma of Christmas.”
I did just that, the Italians were fascinated as I stabbed cloves into clementini, and then they went away and did the same. I invited the same friends from the bar to come and take mulled wine and mince pies and brandy butter at my home. The success of the brandy butter was incredible.
For a nation that rarely eats butter, and scowl at anyone who smears it on bread in their presence, they were eating it on everything possible, even on the savoury biscuits that I had put to go with the cheeses. They brought wine and nougat, and of course la stella di Natale, Poinsettia.
The plant with the big red soft leaves which you find in every Italian home at Christmas. We collected three plants that Christmas; they are a customary gift, along with panettone, the Italian cake laced with fruit or chocolate. I missed seeing England at Christmas last year, so decided on a long weekend in London.
Everyone who called me told me it freezing there. It was going to be quite a comparison being in a place that had been preparing for Christmas since September, and hearing Slade and Mud and all those wonderful Christmas classics in every store.
And on the trains, seeing the dregs of office parties, men in suits, drunk by eight-o clock in the evening, with party streamers woven in their hair. It was great to see everyone I cared about, to enjoy a celebratory soiree, without the stresses of being up against the Christmas Eve deadline.
Shopping for nice Christmas goodies was a treat, and seeing the olde world style of the big London stores, and the huge choice of greetings’ cards and gifts. There seems to be less choice in Italy, or perhaps it is a question of commercialism.
Whatever the reason, a London shopping trip at Christmas is a very nice thing to do. The Christmas celebration meal here is on the eve, the 24th,and consists mainly of fish dishes. It is an occasion where all the in-laws, grandparents, and relatives get together.
My neighbour looked like she was going to faint when I called on her and suggested she might like to come in to us for a drink; she couldn’t stop, not in the midst of all those preparations. I left her in peace to prepare a traditional dish, eels with figs, and went back to my nut roast.
The Christmas Eve feast is usually a late meal, followed by presents at midnight. Most of the restaurants here close for Christmas Eve, and the streets are quiet; a far cry from the extra hour in the pubs in England. Christmas Day, and there is another feast with the family.
Anti pastas, then soup made from the meats from the next course, meat, then home-made pasta, roasted meats, vegetable, deserts, panettone, sweets, nuts, fruit.
The festivities continue until the night of the befana, January 6th, when the witch comes to take all the festivities away and leaves stockings filled with sweets for good children, and pieces of coal for bad children. So I guess I enjoy the best of both worlds.
It is December and I haven’t said “Bah Humbug” once, because I really enjoy all the Christmas mania in England, drinks with friends, late night shopping.
And just when it becomes tiresome and stressful, I return to warmer climates, with a bag full of English goodies, Stilton, mincemeat, Christmas pudding, and raise a glass of Prosecco to wish everyone a very Merry Christmas.
©Angie McNee December 2002