In multicultural Toronto there always seems to be an annual discussion as to what iconography is suitable for Christmas display. If there is a Christmas tree in front of City Hall, should there also be a menorah? Should we even be calling it Christmas? And on it goes……………!
Here in Rome, the culture is unashamedly Catholic. Last week, I saw more people setting up Presepi (Nativity scenes) than Christmas trees. Not only in the churches where this would be expected, but in office lobbies, in supermarkets and even in our local train station, Stazione San Pietro. In Piazza Navona, where there is a Christmas market, a large log cabin was in the process of being set up to house the Presepio but there was no sign of a Christmas tree. Several stalls were only selling figurines and other items like moss, wooden mangers etc for creating one. The figurines were fascinating, representing not only the Holy Family and the Magi but various trades like farmers, fishermen, shoemakers, bakers etc. There is a giant Presepio being created in front of the Vatican but it is covered up and will not be unveiled until Christmas Eve. Although other Presepi are on view, the tradition is to either leave the crib empty or cover it up so that the baby Jesus is only seen from Christmas onwards.
Yesterday, December 8th was the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Catholics are supposed to attend Mass and it is a holiday in Italy. It’s a big day in Rome as it signals the start of the Christmas season. The tradition is that the Pope goes to Piazza Mignanelli which is next to the Spanish Steps at 4pm and lays a floral wreath wreath on the statue of the Virgin. The statue is on top of a column about 50 feet high and obviously, Il Papa cannot climb up there so firemen install the wreath in advance of his arrival. As well, yesterday evening, the Christmas lights were officially turned on illuminating the Christmas trees at the Piazza di Spagna, the Colosseum and the Vittorio Emmanuele Monument. As it turns out, Dec 8th this year also marked the start of Hanukkah and the first candle was lit in a number of public places. This evening the streets around Via del Corso looked very festive with overhead lights across their entire length.
As a start to the Christmas season, instead of a Christmas tree, we bought some inch tall figurines and made our own minimalist Presepio though I must say I was tempted to include the animals (only cows, donkeys, sheep and camels for sale!) and a few angels. I do miss the festive look of a Christmas tree though and the aroma of a pine tree indoors.