We talk a lot about the Christmas spirit, what it is and whether or not we feel it. Last festive season, with all the restrictions and sacrifices being made around the world, for many, it was in short supply. We define it as warmth, generosity, hope, cheer, love and a feeling of good will to all men. It is about showing you care for the people you love through giving and receiving, but it’s also about simply being together.
It was, of course, England – or rather Charles Dickens – who created Christmas as we know it. Of all of England’s inventions – relentless sarcasm, cups of tea and David Bowie – Christmas is one of its best exports. Dickens described the festive spirit as “active usefulness, perseverance, cheerful discharge of duty, kindness and forbearance”. In A Christmas Carol, he wrote about the miserly Scrooge who goes on a journey of self-discovery to appreciate what’s truly important – sharing generosity and good will around a dinner table laden with food. It is about our humanity, compassion and finding the light in the dark. Crackers, holly, ivy, carols and family dinners dominated by turkey – you can thank the Brits for that. Of course, Christmas existed before Dickens but it was a dry, one-day affair – Dickens gave it an impressive velvet-clad makeover. He changed the way countless of us celebrate it.
If England gave us a lot of the pomp we associate with Christmas, Italy has done a solid job of upholding its guiding principles all year round. Take conviviality and feasting, of which it is a market leader. This is a country that gave us panettone, biscotti, pandolce and tiramisu. Dishes like pasta and antipasti were designed to be shared with large crowds and bombardino for cold evenings spent inside. Italy brought prosecco to the world, yet manages to drink it without becoming embarrassingly drunk.
When it comes to warmth and cheer, well that’s why we visit Italy isn’t it? Tourists and expats drink up the noise, enthusiasm and liveliness like it’s going extinct. We come to hear the dramatic mamma mias and mio dios, to see huge cross-generational families eat together and to appreciate the little things – a good coffee, neighbourly buongiornos and eight-hour lunches. We know that the reality of this romantic, cartoonish picture is not as charmed, that the bureaucracy is galling and the poor roads irritating, but we return to our greyer, less attractive countries and feel somehow revived. It’s not essential to visit Italy in the summer to feel that warm afterglow.
Something that’s always surprised me about the way Italy approaches Christmas is how understated it feels. It always seemed incongruous that the country that invented Ferrari and Versace should be the low-key guests at a party for which everyone else is dressed to the nines. Unlike in the UK and US where you can expect to hear Christmas songs played from early November, Italian Natale doesn’t begin until 8 December with the feast of the Immaculate Conception, the day on which traditionally the Christmas tree is mounted. It ends on 6 January when La Befana, a magical witch, pays children a visit. From a religious perspective, Easter is more important – a five-day celebration involving fireworks, countless processions and feasting. Italian Christmas is less about gifting, which perhaps stems from an inability to express our love through words or actions. It is more about togetherness – the bedrock of all Christmases everywhere.
It doesn’t matter if members of a family live at a different pace or do different things, Italians always find a way of being together. I have written for Italy Segreta before about the Italian understanding that sitting round a dinner table with the people we love is one of the most important things we can do as a race – an idea everyone outside of Italy embraces on Christmas Day. This sense of togetherness is not just limited to communal eating – Italians gather in churches, chat on door steps, play card games in town piazzas, drink espressos standing up at the bar with their neighbours and barista, and sip aperitifs outside cafes in the evening. They form rugby-like huddles as a part of everyday life. Family is a crucial, but they are also good at forming family-like relationships with people who they’re not related to. There is always room for another at an Italian dinner table.
Perhaps the reason Italians don’t feel the need to blast Mariah Carey in November is that they take their Christmas bit by bit throughout the year. It’s an approach surely Dickens himself would approve.