It sounds like a beautiful combination doesn’t it? The picturesque Alpine landscape of Italy and Christmastime. A celebration of the birth of Christ in the same country where Luke wrote the account of the Christmas story we are so fond of at this time of year. Centuries-old streets lined with lights where family and friends walk arm in arm…
And yet, I find myself wrestling with the contrast I felt from the brightness of that reality to the less than sparkling experience of my own. It is true that across the country there are images of beauty at this time of year such as those you can see in this photo-journalistic report (view the photos on “full screen” to read the helpful captions describing the images). And while there were no live nativity scenes or towering lighted trees, our little town did hang some festive lights in the main part of town.
Outwardly there were signs of the season. When we went to the shopping centers or little stores in town there was an obvious presence of the commercialism of Christmas. Shop windows were decorated, though perhaps not quite as meticulously as I’m used to in the U.S.A. People certainly seemed to be shopping more than usual. Santa also has a presence, though he is much skinnier than the American version and not as popular here as another gift-giving figure (more on that in a bit). And rather than sitting in the middle of malls surrounded by elves or perched on rooftops with his sleigh being pulled by reindeer, he can be seen climbing balconies across town.
Still, it didn’t feel like Christmas. I took great care to decorate our little apartment, especially eager to hang the ornaments and other decorations I had thoughtfully chosen to pack with us a year ago when we moved to Italy. It did help to have a lovely tree in the corner and familiar Christmas things surrounding us along with some new things we found here to supplement what we brought. But it still didn’t really feel like Christmas.
Our team did have a Christmas party the weekend before the holiday. We all worked together to put it on for ourselves (Jon and I were on the decorating committee). As a multi-cultural team the celebration meant different things to different ones but we enjoyed a meal together, did a small gift exchange, and my favorite part was when we shared letters we had written to God thanking Him for His gifts to us this past year. It was helpful and fun to acknowledge and celebrate Christmas together.
But then there was the disappointment of church the Sunday before Christmas. That morning Christmas was basically mentioned in passing and then the service proceeded like any other week. Rather seeing the church halls decked out in red, green and pretty white lights, enjoying a concert or cantata, joining with the congregation to sing Christmas carols, or listening to a message about the profound birth of Christ and what His arrival means to us today, we heard a brief explanation from the Pastor about why all of it was completely absent. The believers here in Italy celebrate Christmas every day in their hearts and lives and don’t need one special day to commemorate it.
We had been warned that the Evangelical churches here basically don’t celebrate Christmas, but experiencing it was even harder than hearing about it. Still trying to understand it, I later asked an Italian woman from the church if her family celebrated Christmas and sure enough, she told me they don’t. I asked her if she could tell me why and she too stated that they celebrate the birth of Jesus every day. That seems noble enough, but it is still hard to wrap my head around after 28 years of a completely other approach to December 25th.
If you’re like me you’re asking, why? This is the place where I have found culture, personal conviction, and preference to collide most severely in this whole holiday experience. I’m not going to pretend I have it remotely figured out or can sufficiently explain why it is the way it is here. However, there are a couple things I do know that provide some clarity.
The “Christian” church in Italy is 99% Catholic. Less than 1% of Italians know Christ personally as their Savior. The rest are nominally Catholic or have turned to the the occult or other major faiths such as Islam. There were terrible years in Italy’s church history when those who broke away from the legalism of the Catholic church in order to study the Bible for themselves and preach the gospel were hunted and killed by the Pope’s army. The mountains we live beside have been stained with the blood of many martyrs.
It’s too much to go into here but suffice it to say that when the Evangelical church was finally granted freedom they wanted little to do with the Catholic church or to be associated with it in the least. You see the results of that deep rooted desire for separation even now in the physical structure of the churches (plain and uninteresting in contrast to the elegance of cathedrals with their intricate carvings, painting, and stained glass windows), in the way the church body functions (active participation by congregants during the services in contrast to the strong hierarchy of the priesthood), and in the way holidays such as Christmas and Easter are celebrated.
So while many Evangelical churches in our area did little or nothing for Christmas, the Catholic Church went all out. They hold midnight mass on Christmas Eve after which many of the attendees return home for a meal after having fasted most of the day. The Vatican City is especially festive with a 100ft Christmas tree and thousands gathering in St. Peter’s Square to hear the Pope’s Christmas Day blessing and message. I was pleased to read that this year the Pope’s message included the gospel (though couched in some questionable Bible exposition and application):“God has done everything; he has done the impossible: he was made flesh. His all-powerful love has accomplished something which surpasses all human understanding: the Infinite has become a child, has entered the human family. And yet, this same God cannot enter my heart unless I open the door to him. Porta fidei! The door of faith!”
While I can relate more to the style of the Catholic celebration, I do appreciate the caution of evangelicals and their desire to stand apart, though it has been confusing to my heart. I’m still sifting through the internal and external layers that need to be considered. It’s taken me some time to process it all and the more I uncover, the more meaning I realize there is to it all. I can’t simply dismiss the Italian way as ‘less than’ because I like my traditions better. It would be easy, but ignorant to simply conclude that celebrating Christmas ‘my way’ is better than ignoring it. But if the roles were reversed, what would an Italian think of an American Christmas experience? He or she would undoubtedly have questions and would see things about the way we celebrate that would seem unnecessary, less than admirable or unspiritual. Do we fully understand where all of our traditions come from and are we intentional about how we participate in such customs?
These are questions I’ve been struggling with and they come into play again in consideration of the holiday that outshines Christmas and all others here in Italy: The Epiphany, celebrated on January 6th. It is the holiday that is most widely celebrated by Italians including evangelicals like the woman I spoke to whose family does not celebrate Christmas. Again, I don’t fully understand it, but from the research I’ve done I’ve discovered it revolves around the legend of a “good” witch known as La Befana. While we had trouble finding Christmas stockings, La Befana stockings were in plain view at the store. She is more popular than Santa Clause and instead of giving gifts on Christmas, most Italians give their gifts to each other on January 6th.
Various stories exist about her, but the general consensus is that she was a woman (fictional) who met the Magi on their way to see Jesus. After they left her house to continue their journey she decided to seek Jesus herself, but never found him. So to this day she continues visiting every child in hopes of finding him. If you are curious you can read one written account here or watch this video of an actress impersonating La Befana tell her story to an American audience at Epcot.
That gives you a glimpse of our cultural experience during our first Christmas out and about here in Italy. It influenced our personal celebration in significant ways, but we did try to be intentional about making Christmas Day special in our home.
After all, it was a special time for Jon and I to treasure – a Christmas for just the two of us to celebrate together for the first time in our 7 years of marriage and for the last time, God willing, as we become 3 in 2013.
I’ve talked about the role of faith in the Christmas celebration and our experience here with that. Beyond that I found that important things were food, gifts, and family.
Food: Jon and I planned a menu that included some special foods we normally enjoy on Christmas and did some exploring to find the groceries we needed or substitutes for the things they don’t have here. One treat we worked together to make is my favorite Christmas breakfast food, monkey bread. Jon had to make biscuit dough from scratch (since we don’t have refrigerated bread doughs at the supermarket) so that I could follow mom’s recipe from there. They turned out pretty good!
Gifts: We tried to get little gifts for each other, but shopping here for each other was stressful since we didn’t really need or like anything we could find in the stores here. Our families didn’t forget us, but because of the mail system here we asked them not to send physical packages. So there were no piles of presents to open under the tree, but we did have a few unexpected gifts given by some friends on our team which made it nice to have something to physically open.
Family: Jon and I did enjoy some time to ourselves but if we’re honest, it felt more like another day off together than Christmas without having the rest of our family around. Thankfully, modern technology helped to bridge the miles that separated us from them. We were able to join my immediate family via Skype as they opened gifts, participated in their advent reading and even sang some carols together! We were even able to get a family photo of sorts in front of the tree.
Later we were able to Skype with Jon’s family who were gathered together and saw our nephew open the present we sent. And just before bed we saw my extended family for a bit after they had eaten and opened gifts. After our calls it felt much more like Christmas and I realized again how integral family is to my understanding of what it means and how it feels to celebrate something.
So, as you can see it has been an interesting first Christmas here in Italy. I hope you haven’t minded traversing my various streams of thought and attempts at insight about it all. Looking back, I can see now that ultimately the unfamiliar things about my Christmas experience overshadowed the familiar, which is always an uncomfortable place for me to be regardless of how many good things it holds. As with many other run-ins with culture shock the joy of the whole experience is mixed with the need to grieve all the things that are missing.
However, transcending it all is the truth of the gospel. God did send His own Son to dwell among us. The God of the universe put on flesh to free us from our flesh and make us His own. As Luke recorded all those years ago on Italian soil…“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited us and accomplished redemption for His people…To grant us that we being rescued from the hand of our enemies, might serve Him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before Him all our days.” (Luke 1:68, 74-75)
And that is why we are here in Italy, strange Christmas experience and all! As we told our friends and neighbors here, “Buon Natale” (Merry Christmas), because no matter how you celebrate the day, the Truth of Christ remains the same!In His grip, Erika