One of my favorite things about living in Italy, in retrospect, is the numerous festivals, commemorations, and other traditions that surround the holiday season. It seems like each village had their own unique way of commemorating specific saint days. Witnessing and participating in these celebrations added benchmarks to the season. Christmas in the Alps was, for lack of a better word, traditional: a recitation and reenactment of shared memories.
December 5 – Krampuslauf. The Krampus is an Austrian tradition that is also celebrated in SudTirol, the German speaking villages just north of Trentino. We didn’t catch the Krampuslauf near us when we lived in Trento, but I remember the Krampus from my college semester in Salzburg. Completely terrifying. Who needs an “Elf on the Shelf” when you can get college students dressed as alpine demons to frighten goodness into your children?
December 6 – Saint Nicholas Day. If you survive the Krampuslauf, St. Nicholas brings you a gift! In Trentino, Father Christmas came to the window of each classroom at the asilo nido (nursery school) to greet the children. He stayed outside, so as not to frighten the toddlers, and passed small gifts through the window. Note: I would enjoy the American Santa Claus so much better if he had his own day.
December 13 – Santa Lucia. A parade in the dark through the village, ringing cowbells and homemade noise makers (tin cans on string!!). Tea lights in the snow lighted the path. At the end of the procession, Santa Lucia (a girl draped in white tulle and twinkle lights) arrived in a donkey-pulled cart and passed out parcels of candy to every child in the crowd. The adults had hot mulled wine, naturally.
January 5 – La Befana. You may vaguely recall Epiphany as the magi’s visit to baby Jesus, but it’s so much more than that. It’s also the night a hag delivers candy (always with the candy!) to windowsills across la Italia (or gifts in stockings, but in Povo we were told candy/windowsill). Also in Povo, it’s the night a local parishioner dressed as a witch zip-lines from the church tower to the town square. Our apartment looked straight onto the church tower, and we were so, so, so confused the first time this happened.
What I miss about these moments is that the traditions were built into people’s lives. Everyone knew the stories behind these festivals and everyone, it seemed, participated. Back in the States, J and I struggle to create traditions for our family, especially around Christmas. Every year we are with a different family, in a different home, eating different meals. And I know that continuity isn’t the point of the holiday—if anything Christ’s birth brought great change into the world—but I have to acknowledge the loss I feel, every December since our return, at not being in Europe, which will always feel like “Christmas” to me.