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Beware of the Pageant.

There’s always a holiday to celebrate in Italy. If it isn’t about a saint, or a patron saint — of which there are many, than it’s probably about the God for whom these saints died. Or wine.

And when it comes to holidays, Italians have the last word. They believe they invented Christmas. Then again, they also think they invented the automobile and the telephone, among other things. I learned this during my first year in Naples. Apparently everything good has its roots in Italian soil.

The story about Christmas goes like this. In the third century, the Roman church, feeling slightly threatened by the growing number of pagan rituals, Christianized a sun worshiping festival in late December during which Romans drank themselves into oblivion in honor of the winter solstice. In doing so, the first Christians named Jesus the new “Sun of Righteousness.” And ever since then, the week-long debauchery that used to usher in longer days of light, became the holiday we celebrate on the 25th of December — a day in which much of the world now recognizes the birth of a new light.

Not surprisingly, Italians also take credit for the first Christmas carols. According to those in the know, Saint Francis of Assisi was quite the lyricist. He also had a thing for baby Jesus. So he wrote the child king a song. In Latin. It was so well received that a few of the monk’s fellow friars followed suit. Only they wrote their tunes in Italian. And just like that, the Christmas carol was born.

The people of Naples are exceptionally passionate about these holiday jingles. Their enthusiasm can hardly be contained, especially if their own children are performing them at an elementary school pageant. We discovered this phenomenon at our children’s first concert.

Having attended several elementary school performances in the past, I was prepared for the typical “winter solstice” repertoire where all the major religions are represented in song.  Given that the school was located on NATO’s headquarters for southern Europe, I even thought some of the performances would reflect the multinational student body. Turkish ballads perhaps? Greek hymns?

Not so much. The holiday season in Italy is all about a Roman Catholic Christmas. Every child dresses in red and wears felt hats with white trim and sings about the coming of the Lord. Which is perfectly fine, of course, because children singing about anything in felt hats with white trim is enough to bring tears to your eyes.

If you can see them.

Which brings me to my original point about Neapolitans and their insatiable and uncontrolled passion for the Christmas carol. Instead of sitting in their seats while their children perform a pitchy rendition of Silent Night, they rush the stage. So do the children’s sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles and cousins. It’s like a Bon Jovi concert at Madison Square Garden. Only everyone in the audience is wearing fur coats and too much cologne. At one point during the performance, I thought I could hear my son “we withing” me a Merry Christmas through the missing space between his two upper canines. But I couldn’t be sure it was him because a herd of mink was blocking my view.

In those three years we lived in Naples, we barely got a glimpse of our kids singing on stage. Each year was worse than the last, until finally the school gym teacher, who bore a striking resemblance to Xena the Warrior Princess, announced into the microphone in both English and Italian that under no circumstances, would rushing the stage be tolerated. In spite of her bulging muscles and respectable height, the bilingual warning fell upon deaf ears. When the crowd refused to heed her second and then her third admonishment, she raised one arm in the air as if she might at any moment, smite the audience with a bolt of lightning. And with that gesture, a group of military police dressed in camouflage appeared out of nowhere and took control of the situation, restraining the crowd and escorting the more unruly relatives to the door.

Needless to say, we attended the Christmas pageant each year, partly because it was some of the best free entertainment in the area. But mainly because we have children who sing through gaping holes in their front teeth for one reason, and one reason only. To be heard by their parents. And then praised repeatedly.

A Saint for Everyone

Positano, a town along the Amalfi Coast, was one of our favorite get-aways. We frequently took our children as well as all of our friends and family who came to visit. On one of these occasions, while winding our way to the sea, down a narrow stairway made of stone, we passed a funeral in progress. The mourners were making their way up the cliff from the church where the priest had just finished the service. A single bell was still ringing its steady one-note hymn.

First came the elderly men, dressed in black suits that hung long off their hunched frames. Their skin reminded me of the wooden fishing boats that accent the shoreline, weathered from years of sun and wind. Behind them were several younger men, also dressed in black suits, carrying the coffin on their shoulders. A large gold crucifix hanging on a chain slipped from the open collar of the man bearing most of the weight. When he looked up for a moment to tuck the cross back into his shirt, I could see the beads of perspiration dripping from his chin. It was July and the sun was approaching its peak in the sky, heating the stone walkway like the inside of a pizza oven.

Following the coffin were a group of elderly women, shrouded in black shawls. They wept openly as they walked, the sturdier ones holding the arms of the more frail. We stood to the side and allowed the procession to pass, not saying a word. Even our children knew to be still. Great sadness, like great beauty, has a way of holding the heart hostage.

That was the first funeral we witnessed in Italy. But it wasn’t the last. Italians like to mourn in public. When the Pope died, everyone who could scrape together enough gas money, drove to Rome where they stood elbow to elbow alongside strangers to bereave the passing of a man they considered a religious icon. It didn’t matter whether they ever went to church or believed in God. The ceremony of religion is what the people of Italy are drawn to. It binds them together as a nation. In fact, if there’s one symbol that represents the country best, it’s a crucifix. Every public building including every classroom features some version of Jesus tied to a cross.  But if you ask an Italian what the cross means to them, they’ll probably tell you that it represents compassion or freedom, or maybe even forgiveness, but not the distinctly Christian message it sends to the rest of the world. In fact, the European Court of Human Rights agreed in a recent ruling, holding that Italian classrooms could continue to mount crucifixes because the cross represents the country’s national identity and is “essentially a passive symbol” that isn’t a threat to non-Christians.

Though I’m not sure I agree, I certainly understand the reasoning. Roman Catholicism is so much more than a religion in Italy. Its images are everywhere. The Blessed Virgin Mary smiles up at you in the grocery store with her soothing eyes, the perfect ambassador for toilet tissue or lavender smelling soap. Jesus regularly sells designer clothing, sometimes nailed to the cross in a tailored three-piece suit. I think I even recognized the Messiah’s chiseled cheekbones on a billboard near the train station. He was sporting a killer pair of Dolce & Gabbana sunglasses with a lit cigarette between his fingers.

It’s not considered sacrilege to pimp God for cash in Italy. But then, nothing really is. Religion is so intermingled with secular life that it loses its sharp edge. Like food, it has a distinct role in the country’s culture but it’s never offensive or overbearing. To the contrary, it’s often a cause for celebration.

“Who was I named after?” my son asked me one day.

“No one,” I answered honestly. “I saw a movie on television about a week before you were born. And in it there was a little boy named Cole.”

My son didn’t respond. I could tell he was disappointed with the explanation. “Why do you want to know?” I asked.

“Because,” he said noticeably upset.

“Because why?” I said, now on my knees on our marble floor, our noses almost touching. I could see tears beginning to well up in his deep brown eyes.

“All my friends are named after saints,” he whimpered. “They get two birthday parties at school. One on the day they were born and one on their saint’s day.” Standing slump shouldered in our spacious kitchen, his cheeks flushed, I was reminded of the many nights he slept in my arms as an infant, burning with fever from recurring ear infections. Waiting for the antibiotics to work, I would sing to him the only song I knew all the words to, and after the third or fourth repetition, his eyes would get heavy and his muscles would relax, until finally he would sleep. I wasn’t the medicine that could heal him, but I was the voice that could bring him some relief in the interim. Though he was older now, I knew I could still ease his pain with my words.

So I lied. Mothers are allowed to if they’re attempting to repair a child’s broken heart.

“Oh sweetie, you can celebrate two birthdays if you’d like,” I said with confidence.

“No I can’t,” he insisted. “I wasn’t named after a saint.”

“Well, technically you weren’t named after a saint,” I said, my mind working on overdrive. “But your name is short for Nicholas, who as you know, is one of the kindest saints there is.”

Cole looked perplexed.

“Old Saint Nick,” I said smiling. “You know, Kris Kringle.” Cole’s eyes were a blank. “Santa Clause!” I said shaking him. “You were named after Santa.”

“Really?” Cole whispered, taking a step back.

“Yeah,” I chirped without a drop of saliva in my mouth. The thought of lying to a child is so much easier than the actual deed. I get the same physical reaction when I spank my kids in public for, let’s say, darting across a busy four lane road. My mouth dries up, my throat tightens and I feel a deep ache in the pit of my stomach. Like I’ve just been sucker punched by the Velveteen Rabbit.

But I’ve learned to shake off that liar vibe over the years. It comes with the territory, I tell myself. And by-God, my brown-eyed boy now had a saint’s day that he celebrated that year, and every year following, along with the rest of the Christian world.

Pass the Parmesan

Food is a religion in Italy. It’s not meant to be altered or improved upon. And the only food worth consuming are the dishes prepared by Italians. I learned this lesson from my neighbor Stephania. We met a few months after my family moved into the house next to hers. She rang the buzzer outside our iron gates, and asked in Italian if she and her sister could come inside and meet the family. Both of them were large women, in their late thirties, dressed in black nylon pants that accentuated their curves and colorful tops that swooped in asymmetrical lines over their exposed chests. Stephania’s sister spoke first when they finally sat down at my kitchen table.

“My… name… Frederica,” she said, tapping her shoulders with the tips of her fingers. “My… sister… Stephania,” she continued, her arm reaching for the woman beside her. They were smiling in unison.

“Mi chiama Lynn,” I said. “Piacere.” Welcome. I then introduced my husband and children who had followed us into the kitchen. Stephania immediately reached for Bailey, who Glenn was carrying under one arm like a football, her head and feet horizontal to the marble floor.

“Ma, questa bambina, come carina,” she squealed, holding Bailey’s face up to hers, their noses touching. My youngest daughter didn’t like to be held, especially by strangers. She was the infant you read about in “What to Expect the First Year,” who’s allergic to her mother’s breast milk and prone to projectile vomiting. She was also the baby that refused to be swaddled or wedged into a comfortable sleeping position between fabric-covered foam. “A sensitive child,” my mother would say when describing her youngest grandchild, “but exceptionally bright.” This was the myth we clung to even if there wasn’t a scintilla of proof, at the time, to back it up.

In my kitchen that afternoon, locked in Stephania’s embrace, Bailey shocked us all. Instead of writhing like a stuck pig in the usual way she greets strangers who attempt to hold her, she cooed and gurgled like the baby I had always hoped for. The two of them were lost in their own world, communicating in a version of Mediterranean baby speak that was completely unfamiliar to me. Though apparently not to my five-month-old.

“My sister,” Frederica said in between squeals, “very much love babies.”

“I can see that,” I demurred, slightly jealous of a woman I barely knew.

“Maybe… she …” the words were slow to come. “Babysitter,” Frederica finally announced, pleased it seemed, to recall her high school English.

I could feel Glenn’s eyes on me as Frederica continued to explain the details of her sister’s new employment, an arrangement they had obviously contemplated long before meeting us in person. Though I knew he was feeling a little set up by the course of events unfolding in our kitchen, I couldn’t help but notice how happy and at ease my normally uneasy child was with her soon to be new caregiver. And before I new it, Stephania had a key to our home and a say in my child’s early development.

Beginning with her diet.

On the days Stephania came around, Bailey’s activities were carefully scheduled to accommodate at least two home cooked meals as well as frequent snacks. Cheerios and a bottle of formula for breakfast no longer made the cut. In place of the box cereal I was feeding my daughter, Stephania purchased and began preparing heaping bowls of chocolate flavored cream of wheat, which Bailey inhaled at a rate faster than her new caregiver was able to keep up with. For lunch, Stephania would cook a whole chicken and shred the white meat into a vat of steamed spinach and shaved parmesan cheese to make a savory one meal porridge. She also bought Bailey jarred Italian baby food, which Stephania considered far superior to the American equivalent that I had purchased on base. Warmed up horse meat with a splash of olive oil, mashed trout, rabbit and even ostrich were often on the menu. Watching my daughter devour her meals, one spoonful after the next, was like witnessing her birth all over again, a totally new child emerging from the depths of a steaming bowl of pulverized love. The bond that quickly developed between Bailey and Stephania was one born from a mutual respect for highly salted fatty foods, and sustained by the same insatiable draw to flavor-packed meals. Not unlike many relationships in Italy, food became the focal point around which they shared their most intimate moments.

“Come papa?” I would hear Stephania ask my daughter as she shoveled mouthfuls of unidentifiable mush into my daughter’s gullet.  How’s the food? Then, because she was speaking to an infant who was not only pre-verbal, but also determined to receive another bite, Stephania would take my daughter’s hand, extend her tiny index finger and depress it into the side of Bailey’s dimpled cheek, rotating it forward and backward. “Buono,” she’d say in an impossibly high falsetto. This simple gesture became one of the first regular and appropriate responses my daughter would initiate upon request. It would soon become our family’s symbol for approval of almost anything.

“What do you think of my new scarf?” I asked my husband on our way to get a gelato one evening. Buono, his finger to his cheek said without words.

“Is Positano as beautiful as these photographs?” I asked Stephania in Italian when Bailey was napping one afternoon, pointing to the pages of a brochure of the Amalfi Coast.

She gave me the finger. And that said it all.