Santa in Italy

St. Francis gave the world the presepio, or crèche, and 700 years later, Christmas in Rome still highlights elaborate Nativity sets. The churches compete to have the most visually dramatic, and even the Vatican puts up a life-sized crèche in St. Peter’s Square, along with a 50-foot-tall Christmas tree be-spangled with ornaments. 

For my money though, Piazza Navona was always the best show in town, because it was where any serious presepio owner goes for supplies. Eleven months of the year, the long rectangular square is filled with artists, hucksters and tourist throngs. In December, however, the artists pack up and the tourists are replaced by Romans coming to look for items for their crèche. Booths are filled with supplies: waterfalls and miniature food and farm items, dishes and townspeople, shepherds and mangers. It is the Wal-Mart of Nativity supplies. Or at least it was. 

I returned for a visit recently, after many years, and I noticed some disturbing changes. More food stalls and game stalls than presepio stalls, for one thing. And the worst abomination of all: a Santa Claus in full regalia, complete with reindeer. Say it ain’t so, Italia! Say you haven’t succumbed to America’s jolly merchant of Xmas schlock. 

Joseph and Mary adore the Christ Child amid a bustling street scene in one Neapolitan presepio. Photo by Emily Stimpson

Alas. It’s true. Santa has invaded even the kingdom of St. Francis. 

Italy is such a mind-bending mix of the pagan and the Christian, the sacred and the profane, and my recent visit reminded me that it is such a puzzling country to try to categorize. I was at a local Mass for the feast of the Immaculate Conception, and the church was packed. Yet, dozens of people wandered in, said a prayer at a huge statue of the Madonna, and then walked out, oblivious to the Mass being celebrated. 

In Piazza di Spagna, a column topped by a statue of Mary stands in front of Rome’s first McDonald’s. High above the crowd was Mary with a wreath on her arm blessed by Pope Benedict XVI earlier in the day. It is a longtime custom, and Mary looks down on the shops of Gucci and Armani and Fendi, the modern-day three kings. 

At least in Italy, the two kingdoms are allowed to coexist. In my hometown of Los Angeles, a decades-long series of Nativity scenes in the Palisades Park in Santa Monica has ended, thanks to a bevy of atheists who disrupted the tradition and caused its closure. The city shut down the displays after atheists gamed the system, and Christmas dioramas my wife grew up visiting every year are no more. 

It is hard not to see this as a battle to be waged. The Culture of Christmas Death presses forward, and we retreat, fighting each step of the way. 

Except that in our anger and our struggle we risk losing a sense of the Reason for the Season. After all, Christmas celebrates the arrival of a God who descended not in flaming chariots, casting lightning bolts at the evildoers. Indeed, the extraordinary truth is that God chose to come among us in the weakest and most vulnerable form of all, the newborn child. 

This was no God who appeared out of nowhere, a Buddha suddenly finding enlightenment, a Mohammed emerging from Arabia’s sandy plains. This is a God we see from the start, solely dependent on his own creation for protection and sustenance, swaddled in a feed trough. Christmas is a reminder that even in our most vulnerable, God was equally so. He became an infant before he became a man. 

And this Incarnation is a moment so radical, so unexpected, that we cannot help but be felled by the sheer outrageous joy of the Divine Imagination. No cheap Italian Santa, no spiteful California atheist can ever rob us of the wonder of this holy day. 

May you all have a blessed and joyful Christmas. 

Greg Erlandson is OSV president and publisher.