Christmas has some pretty larger than life figures – Santa Claus/St Nicholas, the baby Jesus, the three Kings, and the shepherds and angels, all of whom were undoubtedly all male. But apart from the central – and rather busy – figure of Mary, we don’t associate many women with the Christmas season. When I stop to think about it though, I can say that my own little family of four has adopted a few as we have been absorbing traditions from the countries we’ve been living in over the last decade.
Living for seven years in Oslo our girls basically grew up as Norwegians. From December 1st they would open presents every day on our homemade advent calendar, listen to Norwegian songs (some okay, some bad), bake all the right things. And every year they somehow managed to ignore the fact that all their school friends expected Santa to arrive at their door on Christmas Eve while our version of Santa showed up later that night, popping down the chimney into our chimney-less third-floor apartment to drop off his gifts. But of all the Norwegian traditions, we loved most celebrating Santa Lucia on December 13th.
Dear old Saint Lucy is, coincidentally for us, an Italian saint but arguably just as popular in Scandinavia than in the parts of Italy that still commemorate her today. In Norway every year, kindergarten children take part in a procession at daybreak (not really so early, about 8:45 am), each child is dressed in a white dress tied up with silver tinsel, and one lucky girl is chosen to wear the crown of candles (usually battery-operated though we did know of one hair-fire). The children walk around, singing the lovely Santa Lucia song and maybe afterwards eat some of the special Lucia biscuits a generous mum might have baked.
It’s a beautiful ritual of light in the midst of darkness and our two daughters just loved it. After moving to Italy I thought it would be nice to keep up the tradition. Which is how this photo came to come about.
This is me and my two Irish-Canadian daughters dressed for a Santa Lucia procession at the local Ikea store outside Florence. This is organised every year by the group of local Swedish mums who on the day, roped me in to also wearing a white dress, placing me at the front of the procession which paraded its way through the store, against the usual shopping flow and shunting the goggle-eyed Italian shoppers (and their camera-phones) into the sides as we passed. It was not an experience I would have pictured 20 years ago, nor do I plan to repeat it. But our girls had a blast and felt themselves back in Norway again, even if this was a Swedish affair – that’s close enough!
Also while living in Norway, I was fortunate to fall in with the Oslo Irish women’s association, a wonderful group of kind souls, some of whom moved to be with their Norwegian sweethearts before I was even born, and others more recent economic migrants like ourselves, all of them with much great advice on surviving in Norway. This group decided to bring back to life – in Oslo – the old Irish tradition of getting the women and other domestics out of the house after the feasts of the season. Known as Little Women’s Christmas, or Nollaig na mBan, it used to be popular in certain parts of Ireland and has been going through a revival recently. It’s a lovely tradition and we did not hesitate to feast it and raise a toast to ourselves every January 6th in the main Irish pub of Oslo. Even at those prices.
Since the summer of 2015, our home is in Italy and just before Christmas, as I was packing all our bags for our trip back home to Dublin I realised I had to organise our brand new, “other” Christmas before we left. Never mind the stocking waiting to be hung up and filled by Santa in Dublin, I also needed to fill another stocking full of sweets and goodies for our girls for the morning of January 6th. We’ll be back in Italy by then (in fact they pleaded that we would be) as that is the feast day of the Befana, the Italian witch who traditionally does the present-giving in many parts of the country.
The Befana is actually a most Italian kind of story – she is a (generally nice) witch or old woman who met the three kings following the star to Bethlehem. As one version of the story goes, when she got word of the big news, she went off to organise a present for the baby Jesus but the kings weren’t going to hang around and they took off. To make up for being left out of the most famous Christmas gift-giving ever, she has been giving presents ever since to children every Epiphany – children living in Italy. Unlike Santa, she expects a glass of wine when she lands on the roof and she might still give a piece of coal to anyone naughty. (After quickly consulting with local friends on how to manage this, I’ve learned that you can buy a plastic piece of coal in the shops for the stocking).
Funnily enough our daughters didn’t mention last Christmas that they planned to celebrate Befana – probably because we had not been here so long and their Italian wasn’t yet good enough to pick up on the comments about it from their friends at school.
This year they seem to have it sussed it out, realising that we are now technically in her catchment area.
As long as Ryanair/Aer Lingus gets us back there in time!
This story was published in the Irish Times in January 2017.