Italian Christmas–part I

by Laura A

We got a late start on Christmas this year.  And Italians get an early one. While we were still getting our kitchen into working order, they were apparently out buying trees and preparing for The Feast of the Immaculate Conception, a major Italian holiday which falls on December 8th.  By the time we figured out the logistics of tree-buying in Italy, there weren’t a lot of trees left or much time to enjoy one, so we decided to do something different this year.  We focused on our nativity scene.

The presepe, or nativity scene, is more the focus of Christmas in Italy than a tree anyway.  We saw this dramatically illustrated one day when we were following a lead on buying a live tree.  When we arrived at the given address, we found instead a shop window that was alive with dozens of not-all-exactly-Biblical, but very charming moving figures.  There were shepherds and fishermen, of course, but also weavers, shopkeepers, cooks, and some wonderful anachronisms, like a group of old men whose robes folded gracefully as they laid down playing cards.  When I suggested that this year we might consider adding to our nativity scene instead of buying a tree, Sarie eagerly went along with the idea.

Our nativity scene is really Sarie’s. My mom started buying Fontanini figures as Christmas presents for her early on, so by now we have long had figures most of the main people who make up the Christmas story.  And we also have a few figures who seemed like odds and ends at the time we received them–one camel without any pack or bridle, a pregnant woman, and a man inexplicably carving a relief bust of a centurion.  We decided that the man and woman should be a couple, and we’ve stood them next to each other in our scene for several years now, the young woman no doubt asking her husband when he’s going to be finished with the portrait so they can get paid.  Having been a portrait artist once myself, it seemed a likely enough scenario.

But as we stood in the Christmas shop last week surveying the Fontanini selection, whom should we see but a centurion!  We saw a couple of them, in fact.  We knew we wanted to get one in order to make sense of our scene, so we ended up choosing the one who was holding a scroll as though proclaiming the tax by Caesar Augustus.  We decided that an Italian figure with a bureaucratic document was an appropriate “Welcome to Italy” commemoration. So now he’s standing for his portrait in our scene.

But Sarie was most fascinated with the scenes that moved, blinked, and poured water.  Unfortunately, most of them were well over our budget. But we finally located a modest brick structure with some shrubbery and a little flickering light bulb fire that we decided could be the start of a second focal point in our nativity scene.

And then, just as we were about to leave, we spotted a little wooden bridge. To know what the bridge means to us, you’d have to know about our thirteen-year history of visiting the Angel Tree and Neapolitan Creche at the Metropolitan Museum. Every year, when Sarie was small, we’d  circle the tree for at least half an hour trying to figure out whether the curators moved the figures around or not.  One of our favorite checkpoints was a little bridge behind the tree.  It was easier to get close to the back of the tree than the front, and eventually we noticed that the bridge usually had a pig somewhere in its vicinity.  Was the pig on the bridge last year, or under it? we’d ask each other.  This was how we finally figured out that the curators did indeed change the scene a little every year.

So we had to have the bridge. It wasn’t that much. And the first thing we did when we got home, of course, was to put the Pink Pig right in the middle of it for Bob to discover in the evening.  The pig didn’t stay there after the first night, as she looked a little silly and changed the focus of the nativity scene, but she still plays a minor role in the scene.  (I know she’s a bit out of character for 1st century Judea, but so is the printing press!)

So this year we are treeless, but we now have an interesting new dynamic going in our nativity scene.  Whereas once the wise men stayed properly away from the stable (facing a plausible delay due to a stubborn camel), now we have shifted the time frame a bit so that they are approaching the baby Jesus, and the shepherds are back in Bethlehem, telling the townspeople about what they saw.  Nativity scenes are always a bit compressed in time, and this Christ Child has never quite looked like a newborn anyway, so it makes a certain amount of sense.

I like the practice that some people have of not putting their Christ Child into the nativity scene until the 25th, but we haven’t ever spent a Christmas Day at home, so our advent time line is usually a bit compressed too.  Bob has now left for the U.S., and we will follow soon.  But meanwhile, we are enjoying our advent, and I hope to get in at least one more Christmas post before we leave.

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