Our Italian Adventure: Holidays in Italy vs. the US
Updated: Mar 26
PART 20: It might be interesting to share how we pulled off living in Italy for part of the year. I will post some steps we took.
We are in Puglia until the end of September, then back again in the winter.
Step 1: We are experiencing a deeper appreciation of the cultures in various regions of Italy as we celebrate holidays in Italy and compare our experiences to those in California.
Step 2: Thanksgiving. Though it is evident that Thanksgiving is an American holiday, some of us have traveled to Italy and expected it to be acknowledged. This expectation is due to a need for greater knowledge of other cultures.
But to celebrate Thanksgiving while living in Italy, I must make it happen and plan for it.
When I was a student in Rome, about half of us in the dorm were Americans; we resolved that Thanksgiving would not pass us by without a celebration. But we were in the 1980s; we couldn't find a pumpkin anywhere. So we chatted with a fruit vendor in the city who ordered and provided us with a four-foot-long gourd that was orange inside. It took two of us to carry it back to the house, and from that vegetable, we could make something that resembled pumpkin pie. It was a fun experience.
Fast forward to the North American College in Rome, where Thanksgiving day was/is celebrated with a student football game in the morning, a roasted turkey feast for lunch, and, in the evening, the movie "Ben Hur." The film is shown in the main theater, and students and guests/expats are welcome. During "Ben Hur," every time the word "Rome" is used, the audience cheers. It is a fun event.
Living on our own in Puglia, celebrating Thanksgiving at home is completely doable. It just takes some planning and consultation with the local butcher and fruit/vegetable vendor, and many products are now available in Italy that we didn't have access to back in the 1980s.
During the years when we are in Italy during Thanksgiving, we decided to keep celebrating it with friends.
Step 3: Christmas. We wanted to have a special Christmas in Italy last year, but we also wanted to respect the familial celebrations of our local friends. So we decided to spend Christmas in Assisi and New Year's Eve in Puglia.
We chose Assisi for Christmas eve and day because the town is beautiful and because there is "something" in the atmosphere that anyone, regardless of background, can feel and experience. I call it the influence or spirit of St. Francis that permeates Assisi. We also chose to be in this place for Christmas eve because of its connection with the nativity scene or presepio used to symbolize the meaning of the holiday.
Francis lived in the 1200s when the church culture focussed on God as "Other," transcendent. Often the art of this period depicted Christ or saints in front of a gold background, in another divine world, far removed from human affairs. Humanity was de-emphasized or forgotten entirely.
Then came St. Francis, whose experience of the divine entered into his experience in such a concrete way that he left everything to follow it.
Somewhere along his life journey, Francis realized that the birth of Christ had become a mere symbol rather than a reality for many, so he took the unprecedented and, at the time, controversial step, of creating a living nativity scene in Greccio.
We were in Assisi to experience the connection between the human and the divine and were not disappointed.
As we walked down to the basilica on Christmas eve and watched the light projection on the facade telling the story of Christmas, using Giotto's paintings accompanied by music, we realized we were in the right place.
Later that night, I arrived a bit early for the midnight mass, so I descended into the tomb of St. Francis; the chapel was empty. It was a magical moment as I saw the burial place of that man, surrounded by his closest friends, whose life had changed the course of history. I felt grateful.
The next morning, Christmas day, I heard about an English service in the monastery, so I made my way there and enjoyed hearing the readings in my mother tongue. After the service, many expats greeted me; they shared their choices, stories, and adventures. They were all stories of happiness.
It was a Christmas I would not forget.
Step 4: New Year. It was New Year's Eve 2018, that we found ourselves in Naples to welcome the year with our Italian friends. Our closest friends were from Puglia, but others flocked to the city from Milian and other northern towns.
To make a long story short, we participated in an incredible multi-dish dinner with about thirty other people. When midnight came, everyone hugged, kissed, and danced. The two of us then made our way towards our room (it was a pensione), but one of our Puglian friends stopped us. "Where are you going?" We looked at him with blank stares. "The meal is not over," he said. "We will go on feasting, then at four we will go out to the city to watch the fireworks." My partner quickly excused himself and crawled into bed. I returned to the table, but only lasted about another 30 minutes; then I was in bed.
It was a grand celebration but too late for us.
The strange thing was that after we returned to the US around January 10, we both came down with a bug that floored us for a few days. Months later, when the news of Covid was everywhere, we tested positive for antibodies. We had had Covid!
The pandemic kept us in California until last year when we could return to Italy for the holidays. The same friends invited us to spend the new year in Puglia, Lecce, which sounded perfect.
Our local friends had arranged a dinner for about twelve of us at a restaurant with great food and a calm atmosphere. There we enjoyed bonding over the meal and meeting some new friends. Afterward, we strolled to the central piazza to welcome the new year, surrounded by giant illuminated Christmas decorations. We greeted the new year at midnight, kissed one another, and headed home.
It was perfect since welcoming the new year was not about going to a big party where nobody knew each other; instead, it was about friendship.
Step 5: Regional festivals: La Tarantella or Pizzica. In the book about Puglia that I wrote, there is a chapter on the Tarantella, a distinct type of music and dancing in Puglia. During the summer, a festival in a different town or village celebrates this music every night. We attended several of these over the years and the most impressive thing to us, from California, is the intergenerational appeal of the music and dancing. The faces of grandmothers dancing with smiling teenagers remain impressed in my imagination. Yes, teenagers smile when they are with their parents at a Pizzica festival in Puglia.
Step 6: Religious festivals: What I love about the religious festivals in Italy, and Puglia in particular, is that they embrace everyone, no matter what faith or none. They are a cultural expression of a history that is fascinating. The costumes, music, processions, and even skits during Holy Week and patron saint days are accessible to everyone. Nobody is excluded. These festivals are very cool to be part of, in my experience. And lend themselves to excellent people-watching.
Insights: It is challenging to compare how we celebrate holidays in California to Italy because they are so different. Perhaps a common theme is that, in Italy, our friendships feel more intense, and so holidays become a celebration of our bonds with one another. For me, the spiritual aspect of the holidays is also more pronounced in Italy, especially around Christmas and Easter. The last point is that holidays in Italy seem more meaningful; perhaps this is because they bring together history, culture, spirituality, and friends.
Watch for my book coming around the 1st of the year: "Stories from Puglia: Two Californians in Southern Italy."
More next time.