Finding Love, Peace, and Joy During the Holidays

“Peace be with you” is something Catholics say to one another during each and every Mass. “Peace on Earth and goodwill toward men” is what so many of us want year-round, but at Christmas in particular.

So why has my Facebook feed been flooded with posts by friends and family stressed out about Christmas since November?

*

Before I moved to Italy, I imagined Christmas here to be spectacular. And it is, but not in a grand, overdone way — at least as I have seen it celebrated.

Here in the depths of southern Italy, Christmas is traditionally a quiet day spent with family, eating (and eating) and talking and playing silly games like Tombola (Bingo). Some people seem to celebrate Christmas Eve, mostly by going out and visiting with others, but the big difference I’ve experienced is that things just seem calmer here than my Christmastimes in America.

Here, throughout December, I’ve always had the time to reflect on the past year, plan for the year ahead, and simply appreciate the quiet and calm of the season.

Please remember that I can only speak from my personal experience, and other experiences throughout Italy may, and I’m sure do, vary, but in my area, we just don’t have a grand parade that brings Santa Claus to town in November. We do have zampogne for Christmas day, though.

Peace / Pace

Peace / Pace

Here, there doesn’t seem to be a gazillion Christmas parties one feels obligated to attend, a thousand cookies that need to be baked, and, at least in our house but I suspect many others, no huge pressure for each person to have an enormous pile of gifts under the tree, which I think might be why when I was out and about on Christmas Eve a several years ago, it didn’t feel much different than being out and about on a usual Saturday in the wintertime — except prettier.

Yes, towns and cities put up festive lights and many churches have amazing presepi, so there’s definitely a feeling of Christmas in the air, but it’s just . . . different.

And I love it.

I didn’t always love it, though. My first few years here, I longed for Christmases past with my whole family tucked into my grandmother’s cozy kitchen eating and drinking an incredible variety of foods and beverages — Italian, Polish/Lithuanian, American — after Christmas Eve Mass.

And I still do miss that, but two years ago, I was in the States for Christmas, and I realized my nostalgia is for something that doesn’t truly exist anymore. As much as I enjoyed spending time with my family, Christmas just isn’t the same with my grandparents and some other relatives and family friends gone. And besides that, I’m not the same person either.

As Thomas Wolfe so astutely wrote, “You can’t go home again.”

So I’m learning to appreciate and respect those memories while moving forward with our own, mine and Paolo’s. Here. I’ve incorporated some of my family’s traditions like seafood on Christmas Eve (everyone thinks of the Feast of the Seven Fishes as so traditionally southern Italian, and it is, but Paolo’s family doesn’t do it at all) and instituted some others — it’s all part of going with the flow of being in a new situation, in a new country, but it’s more than that.

It’s a mindset we can all adopt at any time in our lives no matter where we live:

Stop and think about what you’re doing. Leave behind what doesn’t work for you and cultivate what does.

Sure, if flying to the States every year were financially and otherwise logistically possible, I might be more inclined to skip the tree here, buy gifts for those in the States, and jump on a plane. But that’s not our reality. We have lots of animals, and finding someone to care for dogs, goats, chickens, etc. in a place with no kennels isn’t easy to say the least. And I hardly want to leave Paolo alone at Christmas. He loves this time of year too, though celebrations as a child weren’t nearly as memorable for him as they were for me for a variety of reasons.

Indeed, that’s exactly why I like to think part of my gift to him every year is making this season a fun, special time for him, for both of us, creating a special atmosphere — and none of that is about presents. We rarely exchange gifts.

The Christmas spirit is about the atmosphere of love, peace, and calmness.

I don’t go overboard with decorations, but I do up our little tree and the stair railing (taking me back to when I was in charge of doing the staircase in my grandmother’s house); Paolo takes care of the fire in the stufa (when necessary — it’s not always cold enough to need it). Added bonus is that it gets dark so early this month that we get to enjoy the lights, fire, and cozy evenings that much more.

We carry on through December much as we do the rest of the year, dividing tasks, doing some projects, like making pizza, together, and having quiet times to ourselves as well — but the Christmas atmosphere somehow makes it all warmer and more comforting. For those who are religious, of course, there is a much deeper meaning to the season, but for us, it’s all quite simple.

And so, on a weekend in December, while Paolo is off chopping wood, you’ll find me either there with him in the campagna keeping myself busy writing, reading, or preparing my part of a meal (he’s in charge of grilling) or a casa, perhaps literally keeping the home fires burning, sometimes with the Christmas lights twinkling even during the day (one of my holiday-time splurges). I may be baking, cooking, making mandarin jam, crafting, doing laundry (electricity is cheaper on the weekends!), reading, or writing, but chances are good that for at least a few minutes, I’ll be cuddled up with a dog or two and simply soaking up the peace and quiet.

And this is what I wish for all of you this season:

The gift of being surrounded by those you love, whether they have two or four legs — and even if only in spirit.
Moments to reflect on and think about what is truly important about the holidays and year-round.
The knowledge that you are already doing enough, being enough, and simply are enough.
Peace within yourself and the desire to radiate that calm to those around you.
The ability to find joy in simple pleasures.

And taking a note from Diana Baur‘s book, I’m sending you much love, peace, and joy this Christmas and always from my hilltop in southern Italy.

62 Beans of Wisdom to “Finding Love, Peace, and Joy During the Holidays”
  1. 12.11.2011

    What a wonderful post. I’m reading it with a Danish Christmas candle lit next to the computer, enjoying a calm Sunday morning while the rest of the house is asleep :-) Have a Merry Christmas!

    Tanti saluti da Firenze
    Birgitte
    http://www.mysweetflorence.com http://www.mysweetrome.com

    michelle Reply:

    Aaaaah how lovely! And thanks for coming by — looking forward to reading more of you :)

  2. To generate calm…. perfect! This was something I loved about our first Christmas in Italy, no catalogs, sales, and constant bustle. We still keep it small at Christmas, just a few presents for the kids and focus on our family traditions. It’s been some years since I’ve spent Christmas with my family, nothing ever lives up to the memories of childhood. This is what I want to create for our children…love, peace, calm with a tinge of wild excitement!
    ho ho ho
    lisa

    michelle Reply:

    Sounds like your children will have an awesome holiday season indeed, Lisa xx

  3. SW
    12.11.2011

    I read this at just the right time!

    You’re so right when you say, you can never go home again. I’ve been living in the past lately (as I often do during the holiday season). This post helped me realize to hold on to my memories without trying to relive them, and focus on making new ones.

    This really made me feel a lot better about my “holiday blues”, thank you.

    michelle Reply:

    The holidays have an amazing ability to make us think about the past…how lovely to read your reaction to this post, SW. Happy holidays to you and yours xx

  4. 12.11.2011

    Its funny but this year I want xmas to be more then gifts, I want it to be about giving love, time and experiences! So nice to read about your peace and joy wishes during the holidays – even with a gorgeous puppy dog!

    Cheers
    Lisa
    Ps – found your blog via Renovating Italy :)

    michelle Reply:

    Welcome Lisa, and thank you! Hope you have a great holiday season xx

  5. 12.11.2011

    “The ability to find joy in simple pleasures.” Certainly the secret to life all round but especially at Christmas. It is we here present who create the past remembered and remember we should but still live in the moment. My most memorable Christmases were as a child up to about 10 years of age. In our current family the tradition is to make Christmas in the home where the young children reside and so now after celebrating Christmas in our home since 1975 we take our christmas to the youngest grandchild’s home 5 hours away.
    Michelle, I wish the peace and simple joy of Christmas to you, Paolo and whomever you share the time with.
    rel

    michelle Reply:

    Lovely, rel! Hope you have a wonderful holiday as well xx

  6. Kim B.
    12.11.2011

    This is beautiful Michelle. I was privileged to go home for Thanksgiving this year, so that was wonderful for me; today, though, I bought the first Christmas tree that Marco and I will have had since we were married (it’s been four years: first year we were still living apart in the US and France; and then the next two years in that horrid hovel). This year, even though we moved MONTHS ago, he still has so many boxes in the living room that there’s not really room for a tree, but I told him last night that it was important for me to have one. I brought back a few ornaments from home; it won’t be anything like my mother’s decorated to the nines, but it will be ours, and I’m so happy!!

    Looking forward to a little pasta in brodo for Christmas Eve, *our* new tradition. Happy December to you, and thanks for all that you do to make this world a more pleasant place!

    Kim

    michelle Reply:

    Love this, Kim! I hope you have a wonderful Christmas with your first tree and pasta in brodo xx

  7. 12.11.2011

    This is such a comforting read; your Decembers with Paolo sound lovely. I think the season is stressful for most people because any weird family dynamics that might exist become more obvious around the holidays. My family is no different, but fortunately there aren’t many of us and I feel pretty comfortable telling everyone to go home after dinner is over.

    One thing I’ve always liked to do at Christmas time is spend a day downtown, but not shopping. Just looking at the lights and decorations, having lunch, seeing the kids wait in line for Santa, that kind of thing. The last couple of years, though, everyone looks so grim, as if they’re on their way either to or from the unemployment office to try to get their benefits extended; thus, I think I’m going to skip it this time around. I’m still trying to figure out a way into the holiday spirit this year. I’m starting with a stack of Christmas novels, peppermint hot chocolate, and a Hickory Farms box (because nothing says peace on earth better than a brick of jalapeno cheese).

    michelle Reply:

    Completely agree about Christmas bringing out the crazy family dynamics — and I think having people coming from “away” works to further exacerbate. When you’re not around each other on a daily basis, you can better pretend that nothing’s wrong…if you’re always around one another, those little things are simply constant stressers. Not a better situation by any means, but you’re all *supposed* to be happy at Christmas, and X has come so far, and why can’t we just BE happy?! Talk about pressure. Love your going around and enjoying the sights of the season — one of my fondest memories is driving around to see the Christmas lights on all the fancy houses (one of which we didn’t have) with my grandfather. Hope you get into the spirit…please enjoy jalapeno cheese for me as it doesn’t exist here and I love it so xx

  8. 12.11.2011

    So beautifully written, Michelle. I understand how things can be different than what you remember when you go back to the States. Things change and we change too when we leave our native country. I enjoyed reading this a lot.

    michelle Reply:

    Thx Nisrine! xx

  9. Although, I am now (for the most part) a Catholic, I was not raised Catholic, and a number of years ago when I was in California, I attended a Catholic Mass for the first time, and, I was very moved by the “peace be with you and also with you” ritual.

    However, as you probably know, Michelle, beginning with the first Sunday of this year’s Advent, which was November 27th, the Catholic Church made a permanent change in the wording of the “peace be with you” ritual Now, when parishioners say, “Peace be with you”, to one another, the response (which used to be “and also with you”) is now, “And with your spirit”. It’s a bit disconcerting to me as it implies there is a separation of oneself and one’s spirit, and puts the focus on the wording and not the supposed heartfelt intent behind them. A subject to be pondered in a critical essay, rather than a blog comment so I’ll leave it there. (-8

    As for your mention of activities that don’t include bringing “Santa Claus to town in November” – in NYC, where I have been living for many years — he comes earlier and earlier every year. In fact, I told you (in my comment on your Thanksgiving post) that Black Friday has been moved to Thanksgiving evening, but even by then, this year’s Christmas extravaganza had been in full force.

    This year, it was Halloween, when the radio stations began playing Christmas music , whilst the street lights were blinking as “shoppers RUSHED (and I do mean RUSHED) home with their treasures” — next year it will probably be even sooner. A “Christmas in July” as they say . . .

    It’s all very sad because it seems that by the time Christmas Eve arrives in NYC many people are burnt out and frazzled. The day after, the streets are littered with discarded Christmas trees with the lights and tinsel still on them.

    I am quite sensitive to my environment, and I have to be very mindful to stay focused on being quiet so that I can hear the “information” from within myself. “Information” that is important, as it hopefully leads to a self-evaluation to bring about actions that I need to take as well as actions i need to stop taking.

    On another note, to respond to your recollections of family, travel and Christmas, all of my family is in Chicago, and I have only been able to travel there only once at Christmas time, but I do not have the pleasant family memories that you describe. Mine are probably more like Paolo’s. However, I usually have a nice Christmas because I bring Holy Communion to the assisted living center and the residents there are so very much in need to have visitors.

    With Appreciation for your thoughtful post,
    Patricia Youngquist, TLLG

    michelle Reply:

    I did hear about that change in the Mass, and it reminded me that had I not already dropped Catholicism, I’d once again be a bad Catholic — I’d refuse to say that spirit business. How ridiculous IMHO. Hope you have a lovely holiday season, as it sounds like you will Patricia xx

    The Last Leaf Gardener Reply:

    I am sure you noticed that I said I was a Catholic “for the most part ” –
    even though I bring Holy Communion to the homebound, I am not a “rules” Catholic, and I don’t like the “with your spirit business” @ all. Someone made a lot of $$$ reprinting the church missal . . .

    Peace be with you, Michelle.

    michelle Reply:

    And also with you, Patricia xx

  10. 12.11.2011

    The ability to find joy in simple pleasures has been one of the things we have been able to enjoy so much more since living in Italy. You are right that Christmas is treated differently here, fortunately not so much commercialism, though sadly even that is slowly changing.
    Have a wonderful Christmas season Michelle.

    michelle Reply:

    I think it might be the case that the further north you go the more Christmas in Italy resembles Christmas in the US, Canada, England, etc…though I could be wrong….

  11. Ahhh – Michelle – I came to remember this very thing here in Colorado a couple days ago and posted about it. Thank you for another reminder – and what I especially liked was that your realized Christmases of long ago aren’t the same now because circumstances and YOU have changed. As with everything in life, change, flexibility and moving with the flow make for a satisfying, even fulfilling existence. Happy Holidays.

    michelle Reply:

    Thanks Barb; sounds like you have a nice holiday season ahead of you as well :)

  12. 12.11.2011

    Beautifully written post. I like the Christmas in Italy much better than in Canada. Like you, here in my town there is no parade bringing in Santa Claus, there are the festive lights and that’s about it. Sometimes I long for those Canadian Christmas moments from childhoods past but soon realize that in my new life the holiday season does not stress me out.

    michelle Reply:

    The decrease in stress level is absolutely the biggest difference for me. Glad you’re enjoying your holidays in Italy, Jennifer :)

  13. lucy
    12.12.2011

    thank you I needed that!

    michelle Reply:

    Un bacione, Lucy!

  14. 12.12.2011

    I so agree with all that you said so well in this post. My favorite Christmas was the year we lived in Rome because of the simplicity of the holiday that year. Just us, our adult kids who were visiting, a good but simple dinner, midnight mass at St. Peter’s and a small presepe we made using a meat tray from the butcher. The best gift was being together and sharing the beauty of the city and the true meaning behind the holiday.

    michelle Reply:

    Sounds *so* lovely! I wish more people could enjoy a “stripped down” Christmas just once — they just might find they prefer it as well :)

  15. Gil
    12.12.2011

    You really came up with a great post sitting at the plastic table up in the campagna! So true that we can’t go back to the days of Christmas at our grandparents. Both of my grandparents had small apartments and miniature kitchens. One was in the Bronx and the other in Queens. The amount of top quality food that came out of those kitchens was amazing. One grandmother was from Sicily and the other from Naples and we didn’t learn about kielbasa until high-school or college. Hope the best you you, P and families

    michelle Reply:

    Thx Gil, and thx for sharing your memories as well :) We always had kielbasa b/c of my my Lithuanian grandfather. Yum!

  16. 12.12.2011

    So well put, Michele. I totally share your views about the differences between the Christmas season here and in the US. This is our second Christmas in Sicily, and we love it. There’s calm and spirituality in the air–so much less frenzy and commercialism. About the 7 fishes dinner: I recently got an email from Mary Taylor Simeti (she’s written great cookbooks about Sicilian cuisine) and she says that that tradition of 7 fishes pretty much disappeared on the island after WW II–I think some Sicilians who emigrated keep it alive, but otherwise it’s hard to find families who still do this. (Maybe in Calabria it’s a little more common?)

    michelle Reply:

    Jann, I don’t think it’s as popular anymore in Calabria either, but it’s hard to tell as I only know what immediate people around me do. The tradition dropping after post-WWII makes complete sense though — people down here were *very* poor at that time, so it wouldn’t surprise me that they could no longer afford even one fish for Christmas Eve :( Thx for commenting!

  17. 12.12.2011

    What a lovely post! It’s not often that I take the time to actually leave Google Reader to open the actual blog of the post I’m reading, but this post compelled me to do so. I shared it with all my friends on Facebook, because I think it is that special.

    Grazie!

    michelle Reply:

    Aw thanks so much, Loribeth, for reading, for stopping in to say hello, and for sharing :)

  18. 12.12.2011

    This was such a great post and reminder to everyone to just chill out. I’ve noticed that there’s more people on the roads and more accidents and more people just being rude, because they have to get in to that store or see that belly dancer on the lawn of a neighborhood Christmas lighting. This time is about being with others. I’m happy to be with my family and in a better place in my life than last Christmas. I’m doing my part to help a friend in a need and bringing her in to my crazy family, because she needs that right now. It sucks that my boyfriend is in England and we can’t see eachother, but we did celebrate Thanksgiving together (something he made very special for me). So, all in all…Merry Christmas and Happy New Years!

    michelle Reply:

    You make an excellent observation about more people on the roads, etc. — especially since in many places, the weather also tends to be worse at this time of year. Happy to hear you’re having a nice holiday season :)

  19. 12.13.2011

    Thank you for writing this. I am being such a Scrooge this Christmas and this really cheered me up. I am so lucky to still have a mom to visit and a zillion brothers and sisters. And we love to cook together. It is warm and cozy.

    michelle Reply:

    Sounds wonderful, Candace; I hope you and your have a lovely holiday season and that Scrooge moments are severely limited :)

  20. I love this post.

    Christmas, even in a big city like Rome, is much more laid here than back than in the States.

    The tree in the piazza closest to me went up only over the weekend. Not in October! And the huge, gorgeous tree in front of the Fendi palazzo/store will be replanted back in Tuscany. I like they are recycling instead of just throwing the tree away.

    Buon Natale to you, Paolo and all your animals. x

    michelle Reply:

    How nice about the replanting of the tree — I had no idea! Buon Natale to you as well cara xx

  21. 12.16.2011

    Bellisima! Have a wonderful Christmas season in Bella Italia my friend!

    michelle Reply:

    Thanks Deb; same to you!

  22. 12.19.2011

    Here in New England, like in most of the US, ‘Christmas’ started its marketing campaign before Halloween. I am not a fan so I ignored it. No music, no lights, no stores until after Thanksgiving. I live in a small town and we help put up our town’s Christmas tree in the gazebo after Thanksgiving and the tree lighting was during the first week of December. Perfect timing! I am more at peace savoring the essence of the meaning of Christmas. I read a copious number of Christmas books, cook new things, connect with friends and enjoy my family. I loved your comments and those of the others who responded. You (and they) offer me a insight into the peace and wonder of a December filled with promise and not commercialism. Promise, not only for a new year, but one which offers the space to contemplate the joys and sorrows of the past year and bring them together into a whole. Buon Natale and grazie!

    michelle Reply:

    Sounds so lovely, Donna; thank you so much for reading and sharing :)

  23. 12.21.2011

    Michelle, Thanks for all the wisdom you have shared over the years. Sounds like you are savoring living in the present moment. Merry Christmas to you and yours.

    I know you are busy, but I hope you will accept your nomination for the Versatile Blogger Award. I wanted to thank you by sending more visitors your way. You can see your nomination with the rules here: http://italyretreat.blogspot.com/2011/12/versatile-blogger-award.html

    michelle Reply:

    Thank you, Lenora for the wishes and the award, and same to you and yours xx

  24. 12.25.2011

    Hello Michelle,

    My life is strongly pointing in the direction of Italy when my daughter graduates high school in 2 + years. I’m excited and preparing (learning the language/short visits) until my departure. I definitely feel that Christmas is lost here for me in the States.

    It was lovely to read your Italian version :)

    Thank you much.

    Lisa

    michelle Reply:

    Best of luck on your journey, Lisa, and happy holidays to you and yours :)

  25. 12.26.2011

    A lovely calm post. I’ve also enjoyed the quiet of the house this season. Small gifts, little cooking, zero frenzy. My family here have always been about being together at the table, rather than showy gifts. As soon as Santo Stefano is over I’m back to the mountains with my skis on! All good wishes for 2012 Michelle.

    michelle Reply:

    Sounds great to me, Catherine; un abbraccio :)

  26. 12.27.2011

    What a great post! It reminded me of how we celebrate Christmas at home. It is as calm and distressful as you describe it to be in Italy. I am from Cameroon and four years ago I moved to the US for college. I am still not used to the “commercial” side of Christmas here. And the trees! Full of tones of gifts! It always throws me off, and makes me feel somewhat uncomfortable. I am used to the calm of the holiday, spending time at home with family, visiting with friends and not so much recieving gifts. I miss the Christmas back home and I cannot wait to experience them again…

    As for the “You can’t go home again” that is true. Not that US is my home, but when I went back home to visit my parents, I felt strange. Like I did not belong in my room anymore. US felt more like my new home, although now I am more interested in moving to Spain and make it my official home. I guess home is where your loved ones are and where you feel good. What used to be my home in Cameroon is now my parent’s. Mine for a little more is here in the Southern USA.

    It is by accident if I stumbled upon your page and I am glad I did. Your writting is just smooth and welcoming, and seems like your life in Italy is also amazing and calm. Hope you had a very Merry Christmas!

    michelle Reply:

    Welcome Colette, and thank you for sharing your experience; I hope you are enjoying your holiday season. Sounds like you’ve become a citizen of the world — it can indeed be a challenge to find a place that feels like home at that point, but when you have the kind of internal peace and calm you seem to have, that’s a huge help :)

    Colette Reply:

    Thank you,Michelle! And thanks for stopping by! Hope you are having good holiday! And Happy New Years in advance! May it bring you joy and everything you are seeking for!

    michelle Reply:

    Thx Colette — best wishes right back at ya :) xx

  27. Paula
    01.04.2012

    Michelle, I see what you mean … About what I wrote in my Christmas card.

  28. 01.07.2012

    Thank you for this beautiful post. We were fortunate enough to spend two Christmases in Italy and I know and understand exactly what you mean. Our Italian friends embraced us and brought us into their family celebrations and it reminded me of the days of my youth – surrounded by the extended family you speak of in yours. Just reading your post made my breathing slow and shoulders drop, relaxing into your lovely words. Thank you! And a very peace-filled new year to you and yours.

    michelle Reply:

    Thanks, Rosemary; how wonderful to know my post had such a calming effect on you xx

  29. 12.24.2012

    Your post is perfect – an Italian Christmas without all the commercialization here in the US is what we should all strive for. Right now it’s Christmas music 24/7 combined with ads for 70% off whatever junk that can be flogged. For sure next year we’re going to travel to someplace quiet.
    My wish for everyone is for peace with friends and family.


Recipes

 

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Ricotta Pound Cake