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December 19, 2008
Parish offices at Christmas are the same the world over, I think: a crush of extra service leaflets, pledge cards, Christmas letters, sudden donations of food, clothing, extra orders of bread and wine, of poinsettias and candles. Every group in the church has a party: the foodbank luncheon yesterday, the children's playgroup cookie and cake party this afternoon. Q was Santa Claus for the children's library party last weekend. Tonight I must go to a student party at Space Electric Discotheque to fetch students' discarded American clothing: they bought new things here in Florence, and want a sleek Italian look when they get home, so our thrift shop gets their old stuff. But before that I must go to a reception at the American Consulate. The Space Electric Disco and the American Consulate: two very different events in the course of one evening.

Tomorrow we will tramp through the Chianti for an hour or so, cutting evergreen branches, which we will use to green the church. My hope is that we will see a cinghiale out there -- a Tuscan wild boar -- and that it will be a little one, small enough for me to take home in the car to via Rucellai and keep for a pet. Wouldn't a wild boar be a fine addition to the children's Christmas pageant?


A busy time. On balance, though, the Italian Christmas is less frantic than its American counterpart. Like so many things here, it revolves around food as much as anything else, food and visiting. Even people who don't go to church, go to church. Many Americans who live here fly home to visit family, which makes the choir a little iffy for Christmas Eve. Some students' parents are joining them here, to do a little touring before bringing their children home after their Italian adventure. We have a set of them in the rectory at this very moment, in fact.

The fever of present-buying is more or less absent: presents are exchanged, but they are apt to be modest ones. I have tried to shop for some myself, but I find the displays too overwhelming, too perfect. Somehow, I am intimidated by them, preferring to walk and look, unwilling to commit to anything. I go to the mercato centrale, home of the loveliest fruits and vegetables, the most impressive meats and cheese I have ever seen. I emerge with an onion, two leeks and nothing else, leaving the capons, the dressed rabbits, the great racks of ribs, the wheels of parmesan and peccorino, the baskets of ricotta and the strings of sausages, the ranks of pearly white cuttlefish and platoons of fresh anchovies on beds of ice right where they are.

The shop windows, always beautifully done, are even more so these days, and strings of white lights festoon the streets in the center of the city. So far, not many individual homes have strings of lights, though. Electricity here is just too expensive to waste. I have put our poinsettia outside the front door, for some color against the stone; it is cool, but not too cool for the plant to thrive. And the lemons on the two trees there are almost ripe, fat and yellow, hanging from their branches like the Christmas lights we don't have. Someone left a bag of gorgeous lemons on our doorstep, their glossy leaves still attached. They now surround a candle inside, a Della Robbia look for the front hall.

I think of our house at home, of how we always decorate it: what goes where, what goes with what. All the ornaments are in the drawers of a little Queen Anne secretary in the living room. They're probaby wondering where I am. I used to imagine empathetic little dramas about the Christmas ornaments when I was a girl, giving them personalities: attributing conceit to the most beautiful ones and jealousy to the plainer, hurt feelings to the last ones to go up, as if they were children like me. I used to think that they longed to be set free from their boxes, and that they hated to be taken down at Epiphany. But all those ornaments in their drawers are middle aged and older now. Probably they're glad of a rest.

So strange to be here at Christmas, as lovely as it is here. I have never been away from my children at this time of year. I can't say I'm lonely, really; Q is here, after all. And we certainly keep busy.

But I think of them all the time.
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