Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas 2010

Christmas. As a child, Christmas Day proved to me that there was magic in the world. Growing up, my family was not active in any religious organization, although my research has uncovered a strong Catholic presence in the family histories of both my maternal and paternal ancestors.

I suspect our family Christmas was orchestrated by my father, who, at the age of 6, had been abandoned in Boy’s Town, Nebraska by his mother. Perhaps it was his way of trying to create the perfect day. We always had a fresh tree, setup the first week of December. It was laden with lights, delicate glass ornaments and crinkled lead tinsel.

 As young children, we were allowed to place only one or two of the less delicate items on the tree. We watched as my parents put up the tree. When the lights were turned on, the magic began. Our three felt red stockings, with our names stitched on the cuffs, hung over the fireplace. Brightly wrapped packages were added under the tree, which always had a plain white cotton sheet acting as a tree skirt.

Our Christmas was not religious and it was not commercial either.  It was a time of peace in our household and this was the gift I treasured most.

On Christmas Eve, we would leave cookies and milk for Santa. It was so hard to fall asleep. The anticipation was almost too much to bear. Each year, in the middle of the night, I took slow motion, stealth-like steps from my bedroom out into the darkened living room, to have the first look, alone to feel the magic. My father never heard me, even with his radar super hearing.

On Christmas morning, my brothers would tumble out of bed before day-break and the day would begin. In the darkness, by the lights of the Christmas tree, we opened our gifts from Santa. Each of our stockings, had been removed from the fireplace and placed on the hearth. The stockings were stuffed full, with small toys, a slinky, tangerines, pecans, walnuts, filberts and hazelnuts. Next to each stocking, were stacked gifts. Santa never used wrapping paper which had already been seen under the tree. I was able to keep Santa’s secret for a long time, even though the years after my last brother was born.

Christmas Day continued with a simple breakfast and a family gift exchange and then a trip to a relative’s home, where we had more gift exchanges. A traditional ham dinner in the evening was always proceeded by an afternoon snacking feast. A large table was laid out with h’orderves of delicacies we only had for Christmas: pickled herring, green and black olives, sweet pickles, cocktail onions, goose pate, smoked oysters and clams, cheeses of the world, tiny meatballs, sliced salami, crackers, maraschino cherries, fruitcake, See’s candy, homemade fudge, ribbon candies, British jelly-filled raspberry hard candies, eggnog and any other unusual food item my father could find.

When my two children were at home, I tried to carry on the traditions, in hopes to create the same wonderful memories.

Marina asks me each year, why Francesca do you come to Italy when it’s so rainy and cold? The answer is simple. Christmas! I plan my trips very carefully to coincide with the Christmas season in Italy. When I arrive around Thanksgiving, Christmas lights, while not turned on, have already been strung over the streets. Shop windows are decorated with holiday scenes.

I especially love the candy shops, with their creative displays of chocolate Santas and animals, Panettone cakes elegantly wrapped in cellophane and trays of brightly colored marzipan fruit.

Not even the rain can dampen my Christmas spirit, which is rekindled in Italy. In my walks around Firenze, I come upon Nativity scenes and organ concerts.

Each year I attend the European Christmas Fair in the piazza in front of the church, Chiesa Santa Croce.  This year it was extra special with my friend Laura.

I enjoy wandering from stand to stand, admiring Christmas wares from Europe, Sweden and Russia. This year I ate strudel from Austria, sauerkraut with grilled ham shanks from Germany and gingerbread cookies from England.

On the last Sunday of November, all the Christmas lights in Firenze are switched on and the season officially begins with all stores open for full day of Sunday shopping.
During the first weekend of December, Babbo Natale (Santa Claus) arrives, with snow (from a hidden snow maker), at the “Florence Noel” Christmas festival in Stazione Leopolda, a gorgeous retired train station, opened in 1844, but now used only for exhibitions.

In Cremona, if I’m lucky, the city and its outdoor Christmas trees are brushed with snow, at least once during my November/December visit. I peek in at the enclosed outdoor ice skating rink. I enjoy watching the matrons of the city as they take their slow evening walks, stylishly dressed in their fur coats and hats. I collect these magical moments. This year, in our neighborhood church, I saw the lumber stacked, ready to build the Nativity scene. The large golden star was already in place over the entrance to the church.

I’ve only spent one Christmas in Italy with my family in Cremona. I had bought a wooden Nativity set at a small store in town and set it up in the dining room. Marina, always helpful to educate me, exclaimed…”Oh no Francesca, the camel and Wise Men need to be moved away from the manger. The sheep can stay, because they of course were there in Bethlehem. Place the camel and Wise Men over there. They won’t arrive until January 6th.” So, the camel and the Wise Men waited on another table.

In Cremona, a Christmas tree had been setup in the dining room, but there were no gifts beneath it. On Christmas Eve, we had an elegant family dinner, seated at Nonna’s long dining room table around 8 pm. Then, just before midnight, we all walked to church to celebrate midnight mass. As we climbed the steps to enter, I saw a large golden star, hanging over the church doors, but it was not lighted. Rosa told me at the stroke of midnight, it would be illuminated, to proclaim the birth of Baby Jesus. As we walked home from mass, the church bells began to toll and the man-made star was lighted! The next morning, we drove two cars through sometimes thick fog to Piemonte and had an afternoon dinner with Marina’s family, in their restaurant. I saw a only few gift packages exchanged.

Returning to California that year, I re-staged my Nativity scene and moved the camels and Wise Men over to join the others, on the correct date, January 6. This day is celebrated around the world by the holiday called, The Epiphany, Three Kings' Day, Twelfth Night or La Befana.

I’ve never experienced a Christmas Day with Leo. I try very hard to accept the things I cannot change, but at Christmas it is not easy. Leo writes to me every day and I have many letters which have arrived from him on Christmas Day. For over a decade, each Christmas has reminded me of Leo’s commitments in Italy, which he will never break to be with me.

I believe the magical Christmas days from my childhood triggered something in how I approach living. I saw there was hope to live in a better way. An angry teenaged son once shouted at me “You never see the dark side of life!” Oh, that is so not true. I know firsthand that life can be difficult, unfair and disappointing. We each have choices to make on how we survive the hurt inflicted upon us. We must love and nurture ourselves before we can love and accept people who come into our lives.

I believe it’s necessary to find magic and goodness as often as possible, not just once a year. Every day, we need to be aware of the beauty, wonders and goodness which surround us. We cannot wait for others to bring us happiness.

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