SANTA MARINELLA, Italy, December 24, 2012 (LifeSiteNews.com) – Every year, LifeSiteNews asks me to write a Thing for Christmas, and every year I complain about it. “Why would anyone want to know what I think about Christmas?” I say. “It’s hardly news, is it? Happens every year,” I say. Every year, I try to pretend that I don’t care about Christmas, don’t like it and don’t want to do it. And every year, I fail. Christmas always wins, but it’s always a struggle.
You probably all know by now that I’ve got more or less permanent struggles with depression. Head-doctors call it the common cold of mental health, so I’m not bothered about people knowing. It’s also not really big news that a huge number of people born in the smoking ruins of the post-60s Revolutionary world are more or less constantly at odds with the culture. Generation X is not a happy one.
The build-up to Christmas, therefore, can be a difficult time for people like me, people with no family and more than our fair helping of angst. It might sound unlikely, but even living an exciting life in Italy doesn’t shield you from it, and I was getting depressed. Christmas was coming towards me like a giant steam locomotive with an evil grin on its face. Add to that the fact that last year, when I had my best friend staying with me, we put on a now-famous Christmas dinner party for 13 people, and I was now expected to replicate the experience – and I was ready to go to bed with the covers over my head until Epiphany.
But I’ve been rescued again at the last minute by friends, and reminded (as I frequently have to be) that I’m not in this alone. And I bought a tree. Yes, I accomplished the near-impossible, and acquired a real Christmas tree! First one in the five years I’ve been away from Canada and probably the first real tree any of the Santa Marinella Ex-Pat community has ever had.
A friend called a few days ago and asked me what the plan was and after hearing that I wanted to cancel Christmas, asked, “What’s the one thing that you most want to happen this Christmas?” I said that I wanted a Christmas tree. A real one, not a plastic one, and not one of those dumb little 18-inch potted cypresses either.
For North Americans and Brits, getting a tree doesn’t seem like that big a deal. The parking lot of every local petrol station is full of Christmas trees and you can score a nice one this late in the season for 30 bucks. But here, real trees are extremely rare and very expensive; it is not an Italian custom to have them in one’s home. And this isn’t exactly a land of rugged northern coniferous snowscapes. Mostly around here we’ve got olive and palm trees. The Italian equivalent of a Christmas tree is the nativity set, of which everyone has at least three. The only trees are the ones in shops, and most of them are fake and in Rome at least, they’re all insanely expensive. The little potted cypresses can run to 30 or 40 Euros.
This is my fourth Christmas in Italy, and every year I have tried, and failed, to get a tree. Contrary to what people might imagine, the ex-pat life isn’t all prosecco on the beach. It can be a trial to live in a culture that is not your own, and Christmas is a time when culture becomes tangible. The absence of recognisable cultural symbols, and their replacement with alien ones, can be like so much sandpaper to the soul. My friend realised I needed a Christmas tree. After 18 months of stress and worry, I needed a bit of Normal.
So, on Saturday morning, we took the train into the City with a few ideas where to look, though I didn’t have much hope. But after hitting four large outdoor markets and a number of indoor plant places, I tried one last place, the big garden centre on Viale Trastevere, and there they were! Big as a Frank Capra movie.
The garden centre people probably never saw a happier Canadian. I got off the tram in front of the entrance to their place, and I spotted the trees, and ran – yes ran – up to them grinning from ear to ear, feeling like George Bailey. They only had a few left, but one was perfect. Spruce. About seven feet high. It smelled wonderful! Like home. The garden centre is run by a nice Roman family who will be getting to know me in the years to come, I can assure you.
I paid the (fairly outrageous) asking price, and spent the rest of the day blissfully wandering around the Rome shops buying sparkly things to hang on it. After my friend got off work, we went back to the garden place, where they had wrapped the thing up for us in heavy plastic. We stuffed it rather improbably into one of those tiny Rome cabs and got it to the train station. My friend heaved it onto the 7:30 train and another friend picked us and the tree up in his truck and drove us back to my place.
On Sunday afternoon I made mulled wine and cake, and my flat was filled with happy people, and we decorated the tree. The men came over with manly tools and sawed and hammered and set it up in my bay window, standing a bucket of water and pebbles. (No Christmas tree stands can be found for any amount of cash the entire length and breadth of the boot.) My own nativity creche is up – a lovely traditional Neapolitan set that was a gift from one friend last year, in a little stable constructed, by another friend, of beach pebbles, palm fronds and Elmer’s white glue, set about with pine cones covered in traditional sparklies.
My flat finally smells of home, of pine branches, mulled wine, cinnamon, cloves and oranges, and now the turkey stock simmering in the pressure cooker. A real tree, a small victory over the cold anti-culture.
This evening, our ex-pat crowd will gather up extra blankets, changes of clothes and a precious, imported plum pudding, and take the train together into the City again to attend a party, until it’s time to set off for Midnight Mass, in the ancient Latin rite of the Church. Then we all camp together at the flat of a friend who lives near the Colosseum, sleeping on sofas and air mattresses, and we will get up on Christmas morning, to the sound of the bells all over the city. Then, after our tea, we’ll go down to the Big Piazza to wave to the Pope.
If you are up about 6 am Toronto/New York time, you can tune in to Vatican Radio’s website and listen to his Urbi et Orbi address in real time. And if you look closely at the square, you might spot us, a group of 30-to-40-somethings, standing in a clutch, dressed to the nines, listening to the annual message of hope, faith and happiness.
Merry Christmas to all, from Hilary in Rome.