It’s our second Christmas in Ascoli Piceno and once again the city is lit up with Christmas decorations. Much to my surprise, though, for such an apparently traditional place, the Christmas decorations are different this year. There’s a big Christmas tree in Piazza Arringo, as there was last year, and the ice-skating rink is back. And there are stars lighting up most of the main shopping streets.
But in the Piazza del Popolo, the heart of the city, instead of traditional Christmas items there are — giant illuminated snails. On the balustrades surrounding the Piazza are a collection of other unusual animals – wolves, penguins, even meerkats. There are climb-able crocodiles in the small cloister which normally houses the farmers’market. And the stone elephants framing the door of a local bank now have a colorful companion. Many people here don’t like the animals since they have no special association with Christmas. But I think they’re kind of cute. I even learned the Italian word for meerkats (suricati).
Most of the public Christmas decorations are secular. Every church has its creche – our cathedral has a particularly fine 18th C Neapolitan one, complete with villagers. And in some places (Florence for example), a creche might be set up outdoors, but it’s usually right outside a church. There doesn’t seem to be the conflict between “religious” and “secular” Christmas that you often see in the US, which is kind of refreshing. And people say both Buon Natale (Merry Christmas) or Buone Feste (Happy Holidays).
There are plenty of gifts, of course. Traditionally, children got their gifts from La Befana, an old lady who helped the Magi find their way to Bethlehem when they stopped to ask for directions (I know, right?). They rewarded her with the ability to give gifts every year on January 6, the feast of the Three Kings.
These days, children get gifts on Christmas Day, from Babbo Natale (Father Christmas, the Italian version of Santa Claus, usually portrayed as a kindly grandfather with spectacles). They often get a second round of gifts from La Befana on January 6, especially if they are lucky enough to have grandparents living nearby.
That being said, there is less focus on gift-giving here (especially for adults), and more focus on social gatherings, than you often find in the US. There are lots of public events and concerts throughout the holiday season. Ingredients for special holiday foods appear. The fishmongers gear up for the traditional fish dishes of Christmas Eve, the butchers are selling stuffed capons, and those of us not lucky enough to have Italian grandmothers living nearby will find plenty of Christmas cakes in the local bakeries. More surprisingly, you also see a lot of lentils. Lentils remind Italians of coins, and cooking them at New Year’s, often with cotechino (a kind of sausage) is seen as a guarantee of good fortune for the coming year.
Although most Italians are at least nominally Catholic, but the level of observance varies widely. The churches are full for Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve (even though it is still held at midnight here), but whether people are there for religious reasons or to greet their friends and neighbors and wish them good cheer is an open question. The same pattern holds on Christmas Day. After everyone has finished their holiday lunch, it’s time to go out for a passeggiatta (leisurely stroll around town), if the weather is at all cooperative (which it usually is).
I’ve never spent Christmas in a large Italian city, and I suspect that the holidays there are the indoor affairs that they usually are in the US. But in smaller cities like Ascoli Piceno, the tradition of celebrating holidays in public hasn’t completely gone away. And that’s one of the things I like most about living here.
Happy Christmas to all!