“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.
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.