Bring your own tree
I am sorry to report that the Florentines do not understand the true meaning of Christmas. This being the most Christian country in the known world outside of Crawford, Texas, you would think that the celebration surrounding the birth of Christ himself would evoke the proper Christmas Spirit. Nope, they simply do not understand that to have Christmas means to have your house, garage, and lawn ornaments drenched in zillions of twinkling little lights.
On the other hand there is one hallowed aspect of this sacred time that they do properly recognize: the ceremonious emptying of the wallet. The days leading up to the 25th found the streets of Florence awash with happy holiday shoppers gleefully continuing the great Christmas tradition of maxing the credit card. ‘Tis also the season to reflect and evaluate your relationship to your fellow man, particularly your fellow family members. Is your sister worth an Italian hand-tooled yak skin purse or should you just send her a candy bar this year? According to the signs in the shop windows there were sales galore. Upon closer inspection, I discovered that the word “sale” has a different meaning when used by the Florentine shopkeeper. When he posts a sign in his shoe store window that says, “SALE!” it means, surprise, that he has shoes for sale inside.
We went to midnight Mass on Christmas Eve at our local church. They went crazy building churches back in the 1400’s and there are old cavernous churches sprinkled all about Florence. Going to Mass at one of these is a bit like going to church at the bottom of the Grand Canyon except the frescoes are much nicer.
The church-going population in Italy has been steadily declining in recent years (like, since 1725). Blame it on the low population growth, the shredding of moral fabric, or the bossa nova, these are lean years if you are in the soul-saving business. This being Christmas Eve, however every seat in the house was full. Still, that meant that there was plenty of room for us and about 50 other people who came late to stand in the rear and still plenty more room if we had wanted to bring along our pet aircraft carrier.
I’ll admit to being disappointed that they did not crank the organ up, but I guess with a diminished regular congregation they cannot maintain it. Instead the music was provided by a guy with a guitar joined by a small choir of angelic voices and, I believe, a set of bongos. Because of the cavernous acoustics of the church it was next to impossible to hear what was being said even with amplification, not that I would have understood it anyway since it was mostly in Latin and not even Pig Latin, angit day! However, any one of the dozens of little old ladies in the congregation who know the words by heart could have stepped up to the pulpit and taken over in a pinch should the priest have decided he had more interesting places to go like, say, the back of the church and hang out with our fascinating crowd.
Our group of Giovanni-Come-Latelys included a guy with a greasy ponytail and sunglasses (remember, this was MIDNIGHT mass) who did not even feign interest in the proceedings and kept going in and out of the church fiddling with a cellphone and a pack of Marlboros. There was the passionate couple who found the only vacant seat right in the Confessional thus taking care of both the sinning and the repentance in one-stop. There was the lady next to me who may be a Saint by now for working the miracle of simultaneously tapping her toe and snapping her gum whenever the music started while applying yet more mascara.
It was a quiet, subdued walk home. Without the glittering lights it hardly felt like Christmas at all. Usually we come out of Christmas Eve service back home singing those great carols (“Blue Christmas”, “Jingle-Bell Rock”), but we did not recognize any of the tunes sung by the little choir and guitar except one of the songs that sounded to me like, “Puff, the Magic Savior”.
New Year’s Eve is a different story. Many celebrants simply couldn’t contain themselves and the sound of firecrackers began early...three days earlier around two in the morning, as I recall. The assault grew steadily until by midnight of the 31st the whole town shook and the sky was lit with bright colors. It made me really feel good to be alive and not living in downtown Baghdad where this is a daily and far more deadly occurrence. This is not to say that downtown Florence is not without it’s dangers on New Year’s Eve.
We were about to walk home from a party across town but our friend, Camilla, insisted on driving us home. “It’s dangerous out there,” she explained. We laughed and told her that we were not afraid of teenagers with fireworks. “No,” she continued, “It’s REALLY dangerous”. She explained that it is a quaint tradition in Florence to throw things out the window on New Year’s Eve. In a symbolic purging of the old year you are supposed to throw out old objects that you do not need any more. Dawn of January 1st finds the streets of Florence littered with old socks, underwear, and tennis shoes, as well as tables, chairs, and ex-wives. We were told that appliances were a favorite projectile and gladly accepted the ride home.
1. Spread goodwill.
2. Floss daily.
3. Fewer carbohydrates.
4. Learn “Puff the Magic Savior” on the ukulele.