Firenze: Natale in Italia, Prima Parte / Christmas in Italy, Part 1

Christmas in Italy feels much more low-key. Or maybe we are more relaxed?

The run-up to the crown jewel of calendar holidays here is, dare I say, enjoyable. But the one thing I really miss is mass Christmas baking (you can take the family out of Finland) and inviting friends over for a spread of homemade sweets, prosecco, and coffee. Oh for my cookie list.

The relative benefits of Italian holidays – or I should say, a Florentine natale in centro – are something to be considered: no big box stores. No driving. Relaxed gift shopping locally at Dreoni, Pusateri, a leather shop of Via dei Ricasoli whose name I still do not know, even as I have given them considerable custom in the past year. The majority of presents for kids were purchased on Amazon. Just a couple of crazy store visits.

Jason’s colleagues and business partners roll out with Christmas gifts like you would not believe, mostly luxury comestibles and libations, and high-end personal care products, and very often small wrapped toys for the kids. That’s a cultural perk of his position, and I am not complaining – it makes a festive spirit spring happily upon us with seemingly no notice.

Victor and Eleanor each had a Christmas program and party in the past week. They’re out of school from now until January 8, in observance of all twelve days of Christmas, culminating in the Befana (Epiphany) holiday on January 6 (the twelfth day of Christmas), when Santa’s slightly alarming, definitely demented, and very aged sister (or aunt? maybe his bis zia, great-aunt?) comes to the house a broom in the night to drop off chocolate and small gifts.

Eleanor’s Christmas program this year was divided up by class – there are four sections in her preschool, all named for characters from Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days. Her section, called Mr. Passepartout (the same as Victor’s last year), has about 18 kids in it. The section is taught exclusively in Italian. Ironically, it is the most international section, with many bilingual children who speak English or French or Dutch or German at home, so it far outpaces the other three sections (one taught in English, and two taught in a mix of English and Italian) populated largely by Italian children who do not speak English at home, and whose parents hope to give them a leg up on the language game by enrolling them in a preschool with English-speaking teachers. Her program was last Tuesday and lasted about fifteen minutes, followed by a party of an hour with an Italian spread.

Eleanor’s Christmas party +1

Victor’s Christmas program was presented by the entire primary school (grades 1-5) the following evening, on Wednesday night. It began the school chapel by a legit liturgy. celebrated by an Italian priest straight out of central casting give to a standing-room only crowd of 100 small children and their parents and extended families. Victor killed it on the front row singing some Lennon Christmas.

Victor, fifth from left in front, front and center like his mama.
Note he is wearing a very old, white-ish t-shirt with an image on front.
This is as close as we can get to “nice white shirt” with him.

Eleanor fussed, channeled all our frustration as she complained about the length, played on the stairs outside the chapel, then settled into the pew and then the kneeler with her doll. The little girl next to us fell asleep calmly amidst the chaos in the arms of her nonna. This program was no joke and last 30, 60, 70, 75 minutes (counting as a parent with one eye constantly on the toddler meltdown clock.) Whew and we’re done!

Here is what is incredible: after this lengthy Christmas program, everyone repaired to the mensa for what had to be the most insane Christmas party I have ever seen. It was like American school carnival with games for prizes, plus an Italian buffet of dinner and sweets, and a mercantino (tiny for-sale table of art and decorations). The most incredible component, however, was an Italian mom stationed at the deejay table, with a playlist, and some serious subwoofers.

The music was superb. The kids were all dancing. And the tiniest dancer, Eleanor, was dancing with everyone in a mad whirl, big boys and big girls, adults. She was on fire. She did not want to leave. Everyone seemed to know this wee dancing lass. I will confess I teared up to see her unselfconscious confidence in such a huge social situation that was clearly trying the thresholds of many of the children as well their parents. Yet here was mini Miss Cross-Cultural, just doing her thing. It was a sight to behold.

Another mom and I got our groove on at the edge of the dance floor, laughing as we mocked ourselves for being unable to resist even the most pop-up of discoteche. Jason and I finally lured Eleanor off the dance floor with a promise of a mercatino purchase, and left the building with an ostentatious tree ornament and a small Christmas tree made out of paper cone wrapped with about a skein of pink yarn decorated accordingly.

Inexplicably, we received red foam clown noses on our way out. The kids immediately put them on and wore them home.

Cross-eyed from looking

Up next, parts two (Christmas Eve and Christmas Day), and three (what we have planned for our holiday! Hint: ski school.)


The castles in Slovenia are incredibly family-friendly. They all have heating, Pergo floors, and ramps, plus new and modern exhibits that are courteously labeled bilingually in Slovenian and English. They are not expensive to visit and both content and woo seems geared to small children. (Looks like I have conveniently and quickly forgotten the Murder Hole incident.) 
We headed up to Ljubljana castle yesterday via a shiny new funicular and skated around quickly to see the watchtower.
View into Alps from castle tower.

 Castle courtyard.

Tower stair. Spot Victor yet?

Eleanor admiring the castle’s wooden nativity.
Ljubljana is full of holiday spirit and the Christmas market stalls are out in force, well lit and stuffed with chocolates, soaps, local felt, and wooden items.
My favorite booth: full of decorated candy and gingerbread.
We’ve been liberally enjoying mulled wine and kielbasa and french fries. Yesterday while snarfing said menu, Victor abruptly announced, “I have a wiggly tooth.” Sure enough, our firstborn’s first milk tooth is on its way out, with a second one close behind. I guess baby teeth are FIFO because they are coming out in the order they came in. I think. 2012 was a long time ago.
Site of momentous family announcement.
Last night we tried to make the 5pm electric train, but Eleanor was having none of it as she repeatedly attempted stroller-based swan dives and took off her shoes and socks. Jason took her back to Trnovo while Victor and I attempted to locate the Town Hall. We’d passed it earlier in the day but I forgot that it was across the river. We did ask a mom with a young child where it was, but the directions seemed a little unclear. I didn’t catch any reference to a bridge.
Victor and I quickly wound up in a large crowd that was being penned in by a temporary metal fence by Slovenian police (varovanje!) Who was it? Why, Father Frost would be along shortly in a sleigh pulled by Lippizaner horses. But would he? would he? “This is taking too long,” Victor moaned. It was getting colder as the wind blew off the river. Hmm a lot of people were here, and very excited. Where was he? We wait for 40 minutes and then folded. I am sure that to many of the people in the crowd a long wait to see a guy in a Father Frost suit was no problem – after all, they did grow up in Tito’s Yugoslavia. 
“For me, this wait is no problem,” a father told someone behind us in accented English, laughing. But for an American boy of five? Too long. Plus, new Legos at home.

Side note: I feel very self-conscious yelling “Tito!” at Victor – Eleanor’s nickname for him, which she has since outgrown, but which still gets trotted out in excitable moments.
Tito: two loose teeth!
The other Tito, d. 1980.