Centuries ago, in 1223, San Francesco (Saint Francis), the charismatic friar of Umbria, wanted to bring to life the story of the birth of Baby Jesus. In the little town of Greccio, he placed a manger in some straw and added a living Madonna, San Giuseppe (St. Joseph), shepherds and actual cattle, sheep and donkeys, the animals that once warmed the infant with their breath.
Lucia, whose name derives from the Latin lux or lucis for light (luce in Italian), was a young girl who lived in Syracuse on the island of Sicily in the third century. According to various legends, this saintly virgin would wear a wreath of candles as she carried food to Christians hiding in underground tunnels. When a suitor claimed to be captivated by her eyes, Lucia plucked them out and had them sent to him on a platter. (In another version, she was blinded and miraculously cured.)
In some parts of Italy the feast of San Nicola, patron saint of Bari, ushers in the Christmas season with the giving of gifts on the eve or morning of December 6, his onomastico (name’s day). Although many stories of San Nicola’ s life may be mythical, he did inspire the figure of a beloved old man—whether he’s known as Babbo Natale (Father Christmas) or Santa Claus—who gives out presents in December.
In ancient times the Romans celebrated Saturnalia, a winter solstice festival, with religious rites and drunken feasts. The early Christian church decreed December 25 — then the feast of the sun god Mithras — as the birthday of Gesù bambino (Baby Jesus), the “true light” who came to dispel darkness in the world. Modern Italian holidays blend religious and pagan festivities that create un’atmosfera natalizia that lasts from weeks before to weeks after December 25.
Italians don’t observe the all-American holiday of thanksgiving (la festa del ringraziamento). There are Italian words but no cultural equivalents for the day when the Pilgrim fathers and the American Indians came together to celebrate the harvest in the new world. Although turkey and pumpkinare available, Italians don’t prepare them in the traditional ways that Americans do on Thanksgiving
No place on the planet looks like Venice, half sea and half land, an architectural fantasy that rose out of the Adriatic mudflats like a maritime Oz. None may have had a more improbable genesis or left a more remarkable legacy. For more than a millennium, longer than any nation in history, the Republic of Venice preserved its independence. The Venetians ruled a colonial empire larger than Great Britain’s, sent the first diplomats into the world, drenched their city in music, venerated beauty, and enthralled millions of visitors. The first Venetians had no such lofty ambitions. They were simply running for their lives.