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insights on art, culture, lifestyle, spirituality, travel, music, society and much much more from a jet-setter currently on "furlough"…

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Presepe Galore!

Back to blogging about Christmas again…



One thing I really looked forward to during my trip to Italy was seeing all the beautiful and original presepe (or nativity scenes) that pop up around the country during this sacred time of year. We know that Saint Francis of Assisi helped popularize the tradition of the presepe in the 13th Century. The reenactment (also known as a live nativity) and the depiction of the Christmas Story (both live and in figurines) spread in popularity thereafter.

During the Christmas season in Italy, presepes are to the number of Starbucks in New York City: they can be found on virtually every corner of the city, towns and countryside… both indoors and outdoors. Presepes pop up everywhere. The purpose of these nativity scenes (both big and small) is to recount the story of Christ’s birth; yet, at the same time, it also celebrates the artistry of this ancient and beloved craft. Each region uses its own special materials and styles to retell the mystery of the Christmas story. Many times, you will find Bethlehem in the local context, or even staged in a medieval castle!

The magic of Christmas is definitely celebrated in these ornate, beautiful works of art. Cheers to Italy for preserving this tradition and allowing all of us, regardless of race, religion and creed, to enjoy the presepe during this special time of year.

O La Befana! La Befana…?

I know, I know. It’s now January (almost) 3rd and I have yet to finish my “12 Days of Christmas in Italy” feature. The last couple of weeks in 2011 got so busy with last minute holiday excitement, photography gigs and deadlines that I simply did not have the physical energy to sit down and do ANYTHING creative, let alone blog&reflect. But now, it’s a brand new year (Buon Anno a tutti!) and since the holidays don’t officially end until after January 6th (Ephiphany), that will be my new deadline. It’s the first week back from the holidays, so I’m going to go easy on myself… and others!

Now, here’s a short entry I’ll pen for this feature (with hopes that I can wake up at the regular time and make it to my day job tomorrow – our first day back). 

 LA BEFANA

Growing up, I was always envious of the kids who celebrated Epiphany, also known as Three Kings Day. I always understood it to be a Catholic holiday and something that Protestants (the faith tradition in which I was raised) did not participate in. I didn’t know that much about Epiphany and why it was celebrated until I studied abroad in Italy in the spring of 2004.

According to Italian folklore (and many legends that one can believe), Befana (who probably originated from Central Italy and gets her name from Sabine/Roman goddess named Strina) was an old lady who spent her day cleaning and sweeping her house. One day, three travelers stopped by her house. It turns out that these three travelers were the Three Wise Men who were on their way to see the Baby Jesus in the Manger. They invited La Befana to come along. At first. she refused their invitation and considered it a waste of time. However, when she realized what she was missing out on, she grabbed her broom and ran out of the door, still wearing her apron. She tried to find the Three Wise Men, but they were long gone. To this day, La Befana is still running around in search of the Three Wise Men. Befana also brings gifts to children (small toys and sweets for the good children; onions, garlic and coal for the bad children) in hopes that she might find the Christ Child. Her role is similar to that of Santa Claus (o Babbo Natale), and many children eagerly anticipate her visit.

Source: http://goitaly.about.com/od/festivalsandevents/a/epiphany.htm

Writer’s Note: To the left, you can see a picture of La Befana standing outside of a toy/stationery store in Orvieto, Italy. To me, this representation of La Befana looks more like the evil, old peddler who gave a poisonous apple to Snow White than the “Epiphany Witch” who flies around the chimneys of Italy giving gifts to obedient children. January 6th is the official end of the Advent Season in Europe and is also a major religious holiday for those who observe it as such.

For those who are not religious? Well, it’s simply another day to give gifts…

L’Albero di Natale a P.za San Pietro

Fan Favorite of the Trip :: The Preparation of the Giant Christmas Tree in front of St. Peter’s Basilica (Basilica di San Pietro) at St. Peter’s Square (Piazza di San Pietro) in the Vatican City, Rome, Italy. This was taken two days before the annual, much anticipated Christmas Eve Mass and the unveiling of the Christmas tree, which remains up until the end of January. This is definitely on my list of things to do before I die…

Tu Scendi Dalle Stelle

Here are the lyrics of one of the most popular Italian Christmas carols, Tu Scendi Dalle Stelle, sung all over Italy during this festive time of year. The lyrics and music (especially when sung by children and Andrea Bocelli alike) have the ability to melt my heart. It may be a spiritual tune, but it definitely helps us remember the mystery of all things sacred. Enjoy this beautiful piece of art…

Tu scendi dalle stelle
(Italiano)

Tu scendi dalle stelle
O Re del Cielo
E vieni in una grotta
Al freddo al gelo.
E vieni in una grotta
Al freddo al gelo.

O Bambino mio Divino
Io ti vedo qui a tremar,
O Dio Beato
Ah, quanto ti costò
L’avermi amato.
Ah, quanto ti costò
L’avermi amato.

A te che sei del mondo,
Il creatore
Mancano panni e fuoco,
O mio Signore.
Mancano panni e fuoco,
O mio Signore.

Caro eletto, Pargoletto,
Quanto questa povertà,
Piu m’innamora
Giacche ti fece amor
Povero ancora.
Giacche ti fece amor
Povero ancora.

Panettone: a MUST-HAVE

It would not be Christmas in Italy (or Christmas at all, in my opinion!) without including panettone, the official Italian Christmas cake consisting of a yeasted brioche bread, raisins and candied fruit. This special cake, eaten during the season of Advent, originated from Milan in the north of Italy. These days, if you live in a major metropolis outside of Italy with a large Italian population, it is easy to get panettone at your local Italian grocery store, gourmet food store or bakery. Many American supermarkets, such as Trader Joe’s (aka. Trader Giotto’s) and Whole Foods, also carry their own version of panettone, usually made following an “authentic Italian recipe”. In Italy, it is common to bring panettone to various holiday celebrations to be eaten as a dessert, or given to a friend/loved one as a gift.

These days, one can purchase panettone in many different flavors and varieties. Some of my favorite brands of panettone include Bauli, Albertengo, Loison and Perugina. If the traditional raisin meets candied fruit variety of panettone doesn’t strike your fancy, feel free to indulge on other flavors, such as chocolate chips, chocolate hazelnut, limoncello creme, pistachio creme… even moscato and prosecco! Eat it for breakfast, as a snack or for dessert… it is delightful with tea, coffee or vino!

One year, my friend from Milan sent me a homemade panettone for Christmas, made by the company Loison. We ate that with mascarpone and really, it was the taste of heaven. See how beautiful it is, all wrapped up? It’s the best Christmas gift ever.

Simply put, unlike the North American fruitcake (hard to eat and often re-gifted), panettone is a delicious Italian dessert that you’d want to eat over and over again! Buon Appetito e Buon Natale!

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