I am writing this post in response to the Italy Blogging Roundtable group's invitation to post on Italy-related gifts.
In Italy this is the Christmas of sobrietà or austerity so I wonder just how many people here will be echoing the words of one Josephine March in those oh-so-famous opening lines of Little Women:
" 'Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents,' grumbled Jo, lying on the rug."
Well, it depends, I suppose, on what you mean by austerity and how you think of gifts. If austerity means not going mad at Christmas, Italians tend not to anyway: Sure, the children receive presents but not by the sackful and the festival is not regarded as a contest to be won by the family who can provide the biggest, most expensive and greatest quantity of gifts.
No one worries weeks or months ahead about the task of feeding their relatives, as that is something they do most Sundays and the task of producing the festive meal is not turned into a kitchen marathon which leaves the poor hostess in need of valium, a gallon of gin and a spa cure lasting at least a month.
When you are invited to someone's house over the holiday, you take along something to eat - usually a dessert - and a pensiero or small gift if you like. [Pensiero = thought; telling, isn't it?] But your Italian host will already regard your company as a gift and all he or she really wants is for you to relax and enjoy yourself.
Next year marks the twentieth anniversary of my association with Sicily, the region which I now call home and over these years I have received many gifts from my Sicilian friends: Every Christmas, when I was in the UK, my friend Gina used to send a package of the white torrone [nougat] that I like and other friends would send little mementoes of Sicily that I treasured: an ornament, a book, a candle scented with orange blossom. And at Christmas 1994 two friends gave me a Sicily map pendant which I wear nearly every day. "We want you to always have Sicily close to your heart", they said and so it is.
The little girl who gave me this tree decoration in 1993 is now a confident woman of 26 and I don't suppose she remembers that Christmas at all. But I do and it is enough:
Recently a friend gave me this bauble from Caltagirone, the pottery town and as I look at it on my tree this year I am reminded of my first visit there:
Two years ago my friend Lucia, scandalised that I didn't have a crib, brought me these figures:
Every Sicilian home displays a crib at Christmas and often the figurines are family heirlooms. Sicilians like to place typical figures from the recent past in their cribs and we have a famous and beautiful example of this tradition in Modica's Church of Santa Maria di Betlem:
In Sicily you learn that the past is also the present and I am so grateful to my friends here for that lesson, at no time more evident than during the Christmas I travelled to Segesta with Irma and her family. As we walked through a Greek house, Irma and I mused upon the women who had lived there and wondered what their dreams had been - not so very different from ours, we concluded.
Christmas, as the March girls discovered, is about finding joy in the company you have and the most precious gift I have received from my Sicilian friends is the love with which they surround me.