Thursday, January 01, 2009

This is our first holiday season back in the States since 2003. After 5 consecutive Italian Christmases, I thought I'd list the top 5 five ways that an Italian Natale differs from an American Christmas:

1. Gift Wrap
In Italy, you can have gifts wrapped for free right at the cash register. Here in the U.S., I had to buy the paper, bows and tags, which I then stored in my basement until Christmas Eve, when the wrapping marathon began. I also had to come up with cunning hiding places for the gifts this year, since one peek into a shopping bag would have given everything away.

2. Speaking of wrapping paper...
I don't know what your family's opening-of-the-gifts routine is, but our Italian and U.S routines are polar opposites. In Italy, Babbo Natale (a.k.a. my father-in-law) visited the house laden with gifts for one and all. As soon as he left, the unwrapping frenzy would commence--paper flying, ooh's and ahh's, people asking to pass the scissors to cut those ribbons that had been expertly tied by shopkeepers. I kid you not, the entire process was over in five minutes. No one paid any attention to who was opening which gift, and it often took a good 15 minutes post-frenzy to figure out who had given which gifts to whom. In contrast, my family in the U.S. always takes turns, one at a time. Even the kids. Everyone ohh's and ahh's, asks for the scissors to be passed (albeit less frequently, since most of us just use quick-and-easy self-adhesive bows). The gift-giver is properly thanked, then we move on to the next gift-opener. Once in awhile, the wrapping paper and the extra-fruffy bows are even saved for another occasion.

3. Christmas Eve
In Italy, most people go to midnight mass, and the gifts are opened afterwards. Having small children, we always went to an earlier mass. It wasn't until we went to the Christmas Eve service this year that I remembered how kid-friendly churches in the U.S. are. The whole service was centered around kids who sang and acted out the story of Christmas Eve. Reading the program for the evening, there were notices about Sunday school and other kids' events. In Italy, they have catechism classes and First Communion prep classes , but not during the mass. Mass is usually very solemn, and there is no Sunday School with its Bible stories and crafts made of felt and Popsicle sticks. If parents want to actually listen to the mass in peace, there is only one solution: grandparents. My father-in-law was always outside the church playing with my kids more than he was inside. (Although I think he actually preferred it that way...)

4. The Nativity Scene
Il presepio is huge in Italy, and all churches and most homes have elaborate Nativity scenes--we're talking fountains with real water, lights, camels on tread mills, the whole works. Most families add one new thing to the scene each year; they start with the basics--the holy family, wise men, all the principal players. Then each year they'll add a man with a cart, a woman and her spinning wheel, a few extra donkeys...the cast is limitless.

We had a modest one in our home in Italy, and had it displayed where the kids couldn't reach it. This year, however, we had nowhere to put it, really, except within reach of the kids. So Mary and Joseph ended up chatting with Spiderman, and they all put on a Cheetah Girls performance, led by my daughters. My 3-year-old son wanted to put the Baby Jesus down for a nap, and he (Baby Jesus) hasn't been seen since. My mother-in-law would be appalled.

5. Christmas Cards
Italians don't send Christmas cards, although I always used to send them. Up until last year, that is. I just ran out of time, and felt surprisingly not guilty about the whole thing. This year I haven't sent any, either, but am reminded everywhere I go that Christmas cards are part of our culture. So for those of you out there who used to get Christmas cards from me, there's still hope...for a January card. Or one in February. Or, you know...sometime after that.

In the matter how you celebrated, I hope your holidays were happy!


Christina Farley said...

I love this! Such a peek into another culture. Thanks for sharing.

Oh and do you know that Christmas Day in Korea isn't really about family? It's actually a day where young couples go out into the countryside (if they live in Seoul) and spend time AWAY from the family. That's why you never want to drive in Seoul on Christmas Eve- traffic city!

Natalie said...

Thanks, Christina! I never knew that about Korea--how funny. In Japan, Christmas was never a big family deal, either, although it was very much a part of the sales push in December. :-) New Year's Eve was the quiet, family gathering time. Interesting how different cultures celebrate the same holidays!

Julie_c said...

Oh no - where's baby Jesus!!! :) That's pretty funny. I love the idea of Mary chatting up Spidey.

You know last year we made a little Christmas village by painting little wooden people. I made Mr. and Mrs. Claus. My husband made Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. Cameron painted a weird little dude he named, Eager Bob. It's quite a crew. I'll let you know if Baby Jesus shows up.

Angela said...

Oh and I know you miss pane vino.

How wonderful it is to burn witches once a year!

It sounds like you and your family had a great holiday. Did you ever find the baby?

rilla said...

Camels on treadmills!!! Who needs baby Jesus! The camels are the showstoppers.

And, I'm all for the sending cards sometime in the New Year. I'll get mine out before March...I hope.

Sounds like you had a fun Christmas, Natalie. Hope you have fabulous 2009!

Mary Witzl said...

The gift opening routine is something we've really had to work on in our family. I think every family's routine is different, even in the States, and my husband and I had a hard time accepting the whole feeding frenzy that took place during our first Christmases with kids. Some people seem perfectly happy with everyone opening their presents all at the same time, but we weren't -- all that trouble to wrap gifts seems to call for much more ceremony. I'm sure some people would watch the way we do it and be horrified...

We had a good Christmas too, though it was pretty basic this year.

Margo said...

Molto grazie for taking me back to my childhood in Italy! I loved reading this -- and I enjoy your blog. We celebrated La Befana this year -- having a Major Nostalgia Attack!

Angela said...

I nominated you for the Kreativ blogger award! Check out my blog for details.

Natalie said...

Ha! Julie, I'd love to see your Christmas village. We have located the Baby Jesus, thanks for asking. He was under my son's bed. Hiding from Spiderman, no doubt.

Ciao Angela, yes, La Befana came to our house this year, too! She was late, though...crossing the Atlantic on a rickety broom ain't easy. ;-) And thanks for the tag! I loved reading what you love on your blog.

Good to see you, Rilla! Thanks for making me feel better about the cards...March sounds pretty good. :-)

Mary, I'm with you...I like to stretch out the gift-opening routine. Hope one of your gifts this year was hot water. :-)

Hi Margo, and thanks for visiting! Where did you live in Italy? Are you in the States now? I know what you mean about nostalgia...I miss Italy, too!

Cara mia said...

Many of my extended family and friends have beautiful nativity sets from a company in Italy - Fontanini. They do, indeed, have an endless cast available! They're plastic, but don't look cheap at all. (They're not cheap either. :P ) My mom started with them because she wouldn't have to worry about my sister and I with them when we were little; they didn't break. My sister's cats took a liking to her baby Jesus, too - she had to "seat belt" him into the manger with a rubber band.