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The Spirit of Christmas in Tuscany

The English poet John Betjeman wrote;

The Advent bells call out 'Prepare, Your world is journeying to the birth Of God made Man for us on earth.' And how, in fact, do we prepare The great day that waits us there - For the twenty-fifth day of December?

Certainly in Tuscany the build up to Christmas is a special time. From medieval villages to large cities, coastal towns to hill-top villas, the often very cold air is charged with the warmth, magic and excitement of the Christmas festivities which begin in earnest on the public holiday of December 8, a day marking the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.

Florence in particular is magical at this time, and once more has really entered into the festive spirit with a giant Christmas tree and presepe (nativity scene) in front of the Duomo, evening streets lit by thousands of dazzling lights, and to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the city’s qualification as a UNESCO world heritage site, installations from the Light Festival. These combine art and the latest innovative technology to light up and transform some of the most well-known and historic venues in Florence, giving them an exciting new look. The view after dark from Piazzale Michelangelo, always spectacular is now quite breathtaking and resonates with the Christmas spirit.

Christmas shopping is a major part of the festive experience and can actually be fun, particularly so in the markets held in villages and cities all over Italy. The arrival in piazza Santa Croce in Florence of the 500-year old traditional German Christmas market from Heidelberg is always eagerly anticipated. It is set up in front of the Basilica of Santa Croce, the largest Franciscan church in the world, which boasts frescoes by Giotto and forms an amazing backdrop to this annual market’s small wooden structures and displays.
Strolling around the brightly coloured stalls laden with attractive wooden gifts, mostly handmade, Christmas decorations and nativity scenes, there are plenty of ideas for gift buying, and you can pick up some great stocking fillers and then warm up with a glass of mulled wine and a delicious slice of apple strudel.

In terms of decorations, the main focus in Italy is on the presepe, or Nativity scene, which can be found in most public places and outside many homes.
A presepe in Bagni di Lucca

The figurines, from miniature to life-size are made in various places, some of the best coming from the south in Naples and Sicily. They are formed from local natural materials such as terracotta, wood, wax, ivory and chalk, and are a real art form with commissions often being given to well-known sculptures.
Bagni di Lucca has been a centre for presepe making for centuries and each year presents a mostra which demonstrates the process of this ancient art.

The mostra in Bagni di Lucca

St Francis of Assisi is said to have created the first nativity scene at Greccio in the 13th century in order to give pilgrims an alternative to visiting the Holy Land – always a dangerous adventure.
He staged his presepe in a cave with local people and animals acting out the nativity scene, and this pageant became popular all over Italy,

eventually leading to the replacement of human participants by hand made figurines.
Story-telling is a main feature of Italian culture, and thankfully the tradition of the live presepe continues to this day, not only in Greccio but also in many other villages scattered around Italy.
Recently, the tiny hill-top village of Monte de Villa (not far from Lucca), held its own live nativity pageant, involving the whole village.
Monte di Villa is pretty much unspoiled, and there are lots of little nooks and crannies which remain more or less as they were hundreds of years ago.

Mary & Joseph with baby Jesus
Repairing saddles for the mules

It was good to see the old crafts and village life in action, and to sample the typical Tuscan village "fast" food (i.e. real sausages, chestnut pancakes, pasta fritters and wood-baked bread and biscuits and pizzas), all washed down with mulled wine.

Giuliano cooking sausages
The angel above the manger

Everyone, young and old was involved and had a great time.

Music plays a very important role in the seasonal activities, and whether it’s the school Christmas concert or local amateur groups or professional performances, there is an enormous list to choose from. One of the highlights of the build up

to Christmas is the midnight mass held on Christmas Eve.
The striking white building of the convent of the Angel which sits perched on top of the hill overlooking Ponte a Moriano, near Lucca is the venue for one of these events.

The convent is now a music academy, and those willing to brave the cold winter’s night will be treated to a concert of music by JS Bach, Mozart, Verdi and Puccini, given by the Montegral musicians under the direction of Maestro Kuhn, followed at midnight by the mass.

This is Christmas in Tuscany; a time to savour and enjoy, to have fun and to feel the real spirit of Christmas, which thankfully, lives on.

The Convent of the Angel near Lucca