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.