Christmas in Rome is not exactly what one might imagine.
In the few decades since I lived in Italy, that red-suited globalist Santa Claus has been growing market share. St. Nicholas and his Italian avatar called La Befana have been receding in the national consciousness.
Rome’s Piazza Navona used to be filled with stalls selling all the figurines and set pieces for fantastic “presepios” (Nativity scenes): waterfalls and butter churns, animals of all sorts and a host of townspeople. A few years ago, I saw stalls that sold Santa Claus on a Harley-Davidson. This year, no stalls at all, thanks to some mysterious incompetency on the part of City Hall.
Also this year, a block from the Vatican, were mannequins of Roman centurions with red Santa Claus hats on their heads. Christmas trees, once a rarity, are more common. I saw a fake Christmas tree in a Vatican office. Even St. Peter’s Square has a tree to rival Rockefeller Center’s, overshadowing a life-sized creche with characters illustrating the corporal works of mercy.
Italians can still catch a whiff of roasting chestnuts as they stroll down the Via del Corso window-shopping the Ferrari and Victoria’s Secret stores. Black Friday is coming to Italy too, even though there’s no Turkey Thursday. The feast of the Immaculate Conception provided a three-day weekend for shopping, and stores are now open on Sunday — once an unimaginable event.
It would be easy to grow cynical about what has become of Christmas, even in the land that gave us the Christmas creche. (Thank you, St. Francis.) A good friend of mine in the Catholic press who has heard me natter about this tells me to put a sock in it. He says we should enjoy the moments of family and the traditions and not get too agitated about the materialistic excesses.
I once thought that all Catholics should adopt the Eastern churches’ approach and mark Epiphany as the time of gift-giving (after all, that’s what the three kings were doing).
We would celebrate Christmas with Mass and a wonderful meal with our family. We would mark the 12 days of Christmas with lights and carols, and then on the 12th day, Jan. 6 (not the movable feast we now have), the family would exchange presents. This act of rebellion would have the additional benefit, I thought, of allowing us to take advantage of the after-Christmas sales.
Of course, focusing on potential sales contradicts all my high-minded impulses for less materialism!
Like Advent in Rome, Christmas is imperfectly remembered in our society. But maybe my friend is right. We can’t control what Walmart or Amazon do. We can’t go around demanding that no one wishes us “Happy Holidays.”
Instead, we can simply strive to remember that God so loved the world that he gave us his only Son, allowing him to experience the vulnerability of birth and the ignominy of a cruel death for our sake.
And however stressed we become in our quest for the perfect gift, however anxious about the Christmas dinner and the marketing-driven staging of our Christmas decorations, we can redeem it all.
This Christmas, read the Nativity passages to each other before bedtime or in front of the Christmas tree. Kneel in prayer before the manger in your church. Look up at the crisp night sky where the shepherds saw the angelic host two millennia ago and whisper a prayer of gratitude. Give thanks for the ability to give and receive presents, and pray for those who are unable to.
That’s all it takes to recover the Christmas spirit.
Even Santa on a Harley can’t ruin that.
Erlandson, director and editor-in-chief of Catholic News Service, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.