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The Three Ps of Natale

Valerie Schneider

The holiday season is upon us. We know this without a doubt because the Festa della Immacolata Concezione has come and gone, ushering in the official start of la stagione natalizia in these parts. While the centro commerciale (shopping mall) went American-style and put up displays at the end of November, here in the centro storico, which is our residence and playground, they kept more closely to the traditional calendar, for which we are grateful. I can only handle so much of the piped music streaming into the piazzas from the loudspeakers. While there are some carols and Christmas tunes among them, most –for reasons we’ve not been able to discern-is disco music. It must be said that I despise disco. The colorful carousel in the Piazza del Popolo makes us smile and thrills the kids, but instead of what we could term normal carousel music…you know, the tinkling strains you hear at every merry-go-round in America, they play the Village People and Gloria Gaynor. Go figure.

At least this year we were prepared for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Last year we found out the hard way that December 8 is an important holiday dedicated to Mary. Having no idea and no food in the house, I went out expecting business as usual only to find all the grocery stores, and any other stores that may carry anything remotely resembling food, shuttered. Not knowing what was amuck, I went to the neighborhood bar to inquire, only to find his door locked up, too. Fearing calamity had struck, I wandered into the piazza where I inquired of the first elderly gentleman I happened upon, “hey, what’s the deal around here?”  With an attempt to conceal his surprise at so ignorant a question, he mumbled, “La Immacolata,” as if that should explain everything. Seeing that confusion still registered heavily on my face, he pointed toward the Duomo and set off, evidently wanting to put some distance between himself and the obvious heathen standing before him in case lightening should reach down for me.

But this year…ah, this year we were in the know. We prepared. We bought food in advance and knew enough to save our daily stroll for the evening hours when everyone would be out to see the newly-hung lights and boughs, and would be mobbing every open bar for aperitivo hour, toasting with Prosecco, and then strolling the centro in a race course-like circuit to study the store windows and plan their shopping strategies. Discerning these habits and traditions and patterns provides a feeling akin to victory and a sense of belonging. From our experience last year, I discovered that, regardless of what one eats or how else one may celebrate, there are three essential elements to the holidays here, the Three Ps of Natale.

1. Prosecco

Mentioned above, Prosecco is the Italian sparkling wine of choice, enjoyed throughout the year for simple pleasures like the aperitivo and popped open for celebrations. For festive holiday dinners it is uncorked to open the meal and then served again at the very end as a toast to the guests just before they depart, a sort of christening for Christmas and the upcoming new year. It is often purchased by the case and will be consumed frequently from the Immacolata right on through Epiphany. We like the Prosecco tradition. We find it much tastier than most of the so-called champagne we had tried at home, much of which was so carbonated that it would immediately give me the hiccups, or so sweet it would make me gag.Plus, the glasses are usually rather small, so you get to feel festive without getting hammered.

Prosecco, Italian sparkling wine.

Prosecco, Italian sparkling wine

2. Panettone

In my youth I’d heard about panettone, the traditional Italian fruitcake proffered only at Christmastime. I had pined for a taste but had never laid eyes on what I imagined to be a refined-tasting confection of golden-hued beauty. The weighty whole-fruit- and liquor-filled fruitcakes which Americans consume seemed coarse and common in comparison.

Then I moved to Italy and received a hefty number of panettone, handed out like Christmas cards by each and every acquaintance. Huge slices were presented in every home we entered, every restaurant in which we dined.I thought, ‘Wow, they really like their panettone!’ Then I came to realize that rather than devouring great quantities of the stuff, everyone was, in actuality, trying to unload their extras, re-gifting them to the next friend or stranger they happened upon in a desperate attempt to lighten their own fruitcake burden. While my friends would sing the praises of it - “e tradizionale, molto buono,” they kept repeating - they would then admit that they didn’t really like more than a couple of slices a year themselves. Because, while the taste is not offensive, nor is it exactly a sensory experience. A few candied fruits and raisins in a high-rise, bread-like, sweetened airy loaf. Kinda boring, really. And the trouble is, everyone keeps giving them to everyone they know, creating a glut in every household.

I did find it more edible when made into French toast or slathered with Nutella, because as everyone knows, just about anything tastes better with Nutella. But still; there is only so much of it you can take, and because of the ridiculous, sheer excess we tried to figure out what to do with it, besides actually eating it. Sure, we could resort to feeding it to the pigeons, but we feel a sort of moral obligation to not encourage the flying rats to remain in the centro storico. One evening, with nothing better to do than contemplate our panettone overload, we came up with a few brainstorms to have a little fun with the stuff, in case you ever find yourself in a similar position.

*Ding Dong Ditch It. You can relive your childhood games while spreading Christmas joy far and wide by leaving your unwanted boxes on the doorsteps of unsuspecting souls, ringing the doorbell and running away as fast as you can. This may best be played in a neighborhood other than your own if you don’t want to run the risk of your friends returning the gifts to your own front porch.
*Flame Them. Cut into rectangular sticks and let them sit out to dry. Then dip them in strong booze and use them as fire-starter sticks.
*Have a Treasure Hunt. Gather the little ones around the table and cut the panettone into as many wedges are there are kids. Then let them dig in and get their hands dirty, picking out all the raisins and fruit pieces. The one to find the most treasures wins a prize.

Panettone, the traditional Italian fruitcake

Panettone, the traditional Italian fruitcake

3. Presepi

All around Italy nativity scenes are erected – from simple mangers to elaborate, functioning towns and live “shows” with humans dressed in first century-like garb accompanied by wooly sheep and other barnyard animals. The first such nativity is said to have been created by the hands of St. Francis of Assisi and that city pulls out all the stops with displays in every church, in the piazza, on the lawn in front of the Basilica, as well as more than one hundred presepi on display in the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli. Set in the valley below Assisi’s steep streets, the basilica was erected around the humble little chapel where St. Francis had preached. Last year during our visit, we admired manger scenes that ranged from large, ceramic villages to simple, hand-knit figures, donated by faithful congregations around the world, many containing symbols and materials to denote that country’s culture. They were charming. In Rome, we toured the exhibit in Piazza del Popolo of 100 Presepi, again from around the world. Here we saw many whimsical representations, including a scene fancifully cut from CDs and DVDs and fashioned into stars, a stable, and the figures. Sounds strange, but it was adorable. Another was made entirely from pencils, and there were several made by school children from various pasta shapes. Having myself participated in the tradition of macaroni-art as a child, I was happy to find that particular craft is still alive and well.

But the best one by far was on display right here in Ascoli Piceno. In a little-known church on the edge of the centro storico we found the delightful presepe that comprised all of Israel and showed Egypt in the background. There were villages grouped in the background. In the fore, Bethlehem bustled with activity – the shepherds moved among their sheep (and even the sheep’s tails wagged); a blacksmith pounded iron; a woman baked bread while another mopped her floor (with the rag and brush action I’ve previously written about); someone drew water from a well and a man was grinding olives into oil, while next door a mill stone groaned while grinding flour. In short, the entire town was busy going about their normal lives, while we had to search among all the activity for the cradle that held the babe. Much as we imagine the real event to have transpired.

Amazingly, though, they had also constructed a lake with moving waves and ships with beacon lights sailing atop, and beyond were the barely-distinguishable outlines of the sphinxes and pyramids of Egypt.It was enchanting and captivating and elaborate.

Other presepi offered similar village scenes but made me laugh at the Italian adaptation. Somehow I don’t think there were really prosciutto hanging from the rafters or pigs in the corral next door to the manger, as represented in a couple such nativities. In Bethlehem, the City of David? Probably not, but oh-so-Italian.

These intricate displays obviously took much time to construct, but were only unveiled to the public beginning on Christmas Eve. We quickly became charmed by this new tradition (new to us, that is), walking from church to church in the evening chill to peek into the first century, as well as into the Italian penchant for show and ingenuity. The third of the Three Ps is our favorite.

However you celebrate the holidays, we wish you a joyful time and a New Year brimming with dreams and hope. And if you want a panettone, please let me know. I’d be more than happy to unload, uh I mean, give you one of mine.

Valerie Schneider is a freelance writer, who lived in New Mexico for twenty years before trading the high desert for the medieval hill towns of Italy in May, 2006. She is a regular contributor to Slow Travel, pens travel agency newsletters, and has written for Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel. She and her husband, Bryan, currently reside in Ascoli Piceno where they conduct small-group tours called Panorama Italy. Read more on her blog, 2 Baci in a Pinon Tree. See Valerie's Slow Travel Member page.

© Valerie Schneider, 2007

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