The trappings of “an English Christmas” have so successfully infiltrated the Italian psychic that most people will look at you as if your were mad if you suggest that huge present-filled stockings and decorated trees have not been part of Italian culture da sempre (always)!
When I arrived in Verona, overcome by a feeling of nostalgia and loneliness, I decided to “have Christmas”. I wanted to approximate the kind I had as a child. Most of all I wanted a Christmas tree strung with flashing fairy lights. Armed with my shopping list, visions of sugar plums dancing in my head, I went down to the Standa, my favorite department store. I saw nothing on display that fit my concept of tree ornaments and I certainly saw no jolly oversized stockings. I decided to flag a shop assistant and make some inquires. It should perhaps be noted that at this point in my life in Verona I had taken to using Standa as a language lab. The good-natured staff was used to me coming in with my drawing pad and sketching the items I wanted and many of them had become adept at guessing my needs based on my charades.
“Stockings?” a shop assistant asked, confused but game.
“Yes, yes, big ones!”
“For you?” she said, glancing furtively at my feet.
“No. No for Santa Claus.”
This was met with silence until I dredged up the Italian name for the jolly old elf.
“Babo Natale!” I had hoped that these magic words would clear up our misunderstanding. I was wrong. She had no idea what I was on about so she called for the help of the rest of the sales staff. A little crowd of them gathered round while I acted out hanging stockings and shinnying down a chimney. As interesting as this might have been for them during a slack weekday afternoon, my capering left them mystified. I pulled out my pad and drew a Christmas tree. They complimented my draftsmanship and allowed as how they had seen such things before but they weren’t sure where I could buy ornaments.
“Germany or maybe Croatia,” came one helpful suggestion.
Dejected I left the shop and headed for my font of all things Italian, Annalisa, the owner of the Osteria Carro Armato. “When I was a little girl, there was one family in our village who had a Christmas tree,” she said. “All us kids would go down and press our noses against their window to look at it. After word got out about the tree, the mother of one of my friends said she couldn’t play with the children in that family again because they were pagans. But they weren’t pagans – it was just that the mother was English.”
Last Christmas I told this story to a nineteen year old university student. She of course felt the need to correct me. “No, no, no,” she said. “There have always been Christmas trees and Santa Claus in Italy.” After this little encounter I began a serious, scientific study into the subject of alberi di Natale.
People under forty assert that Christmas trees have been around da sempre and that such trees were a family tradition stretching back generations. “Your parents and your grandparents had trees?” I would ask. “Oh, yes. Of course!” Those over fifty, however, can precisely pinpoint the moment that they saw their first tree. These sightings occurred in the early 1950s, with the practice becoming more widespread in the 1960s. All my respondents, no matter what their age, agreed on one point, however: a Nativity Scene has been part of the Italian Christmas celebration da sempre.