Tuesday, February 10, 2009

No Snow or mistletoe

I didn’t wrap or unwrap one package this Christmas. It was an advent season absent of any gift shopping, cookie baking, tree decorating, or carol singing. I didn’t encounter any Santa Clauses or mistletoe or watch any holiday movies. There were no office parties or family dinners.

Completely untainted by commercialism, this Christmas was indisputably the most religious holiday I’ve ever experienced. Midnight mass was the highlight of my Christmas Eve. My Christmas day was planned around the Pope’s midday blessing. In the capital of Christendom, much of my Christmas week consisted of admiring world class churches and all varieties of presepi, Italian nativity scenes.

I saw the holy family displayed in countless cathedrals, businesses, and public buildings, often tucked away in store windows and crowning plazas. I even noticed a tiny nativity on top of a telephone pole. I visited the world’s largest nativity scene in Saint Peter’s Square and discovered the world’s first nativity scene in San Maria Maggiore. Many displays painstakingly depicted entire villages. Some had running water, music, and even smoke and light affects. Others were no more than a simple wooden trio. Many artists set the scene in their hometown and the protagonists were often dressed as Renaissance Italians.

Before I'd discovered the world of presepi and was just solidifying my plans for an Italian Christmas, my first thought was to attend Christmas Eve Mass at the Vatican. But after a bit of research I decided that being crammed among thousands of strangers, purportedly prone to pushing and shoving, staring at a giant projector screen at 1 a.m. in the cold wasn’t quite the Italian Christmas Eve experience I had in mind. Instead I planned to attend the service at Santa Maria Aracoeli, one of the oldest and most revered churches with 124 steps leading up to its entrance. On the big night, chilly winter air filled the unheated church. Most of the well-dressed parishioners kept on their coats and hats during the ceremonious two-hour service led by two high-ranked bishops.

Now all of the mangers in the aforementioned presepi remain empty until midnight on Christmas Eve, when the baby Jesus is added to the scene. Santa Maria Aracoeli houses a celebrated relic, a small statue of the infant Jesus supposedly carved from an olive tree in the Garden of Gethsemane by a friar in Jerusalem during the 15th century and painted by an angel while he slept. On a voyage to Rome, the Santo Bambino fell overboard in a storm but miraculously reappeared on Italian shores.

At the end of the service, the bishop climbed a baroque throne to unveil the shiny, jewel-encrusted and rather hideous statue and lift it into the air. He then led the congregation in a solemn procession to the nativity scene, where he placed the baby in the manger. Next, the members of the parade waited their turn in line to kneel, heads bowed, and give the statue the traditional Epiphany kiss. So this was just their way of worshiping and celebrating the coming of Christ to save the world, but I was thinking -- There's no way I would get down on one knee and kiss a baby doll.

Christmas morning I walked to the Vatican to attend the Pope’s annual Christmas day blessing in Saint Peter’s Square. Being small and alone, I managed to squeeze my way through the crowd of thousands to a good view of his papacy, Benedict XVI. At the end of the blessing he began to recite a Christmas blessing in every language. He started with Italian before switching to his native German and then to English. When he spoke in Spanish, the language the majority of Catholics speak, I unexpectedly started to tear up, thinking about the humble women I’d seen in small Latin American villages on their way to morning mass or clutching rosaries. As the Pope continued to give his blessing in every language imaginable, my goosebumps intensified. People from every corner of the world made up the mass of people filling the square. With every new language, I saw someone in the crowd whose face lit up.

The whole spectacle evoked an overwhelming feeling of unity. Despite the wars, the political disputes, the economic crises, the environmental threats, here were people from all over the globe joined in a celebration of hope and peace. I thought about the horrific popes I’d learned about throughout my education who started wars and promoted genocide and exploited the poor. As I considered the Catholic Church’s dark past, listening to an intellectual polyglot with a humble demeanor preaching peace and redemption momentarily gave me hope that humankind was progressing to better things.


  1. OMG I reaaaaaaally love and enjoy Barcelona...I hope you too;)

    nive blog! see you!:)

  2. I like your writing... Brava. Check out my blog 50yearsinItaly...
    Mary Jane


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