I am not ready for Christmas until the manger scenes are unwrapped and assembled. It’s a tradition that began in the late 50’s in Dad’s first post, Caracas, the first of the three Catholic countries we called home in which the creche is the center of Christmas commemorations. During the early 60’s in Italy, our presepio collection grew to include shepherds, farm animals, bridges, elements of an entire diorama that took us hours to create: newspaper hills covered in moss, streams of tin foil, the place at the edge of the scene from which my sister and I would progress the Wise Men, clay step by clay step, until they arrived to give the baby their gifts on January 7.
My Nativity elements today are an amalgam of home-grown, handcrafted and mass produced pieces. My uncle Glenn Goodroad built the manger in South Dakota a quarter-century ago. The little black and white dog gazing at Baby Jesus is from Caracas and is nearly as old as I am. He’s down to two stumpy legs so I lean him up against the manger: he’s earned a place of honor, as do the Caraqueno standing angels whose glitter has all but worn off.
The clay pots are from the ‘60s in Bogota, as was a folk art manger made of a Fab detergent box that I treasured for 50 years, far longer than its useful life. The trees in clay are from Madrid’s Plaza Mayor in early 70’s, as are the Wise Men.
My dad brought me back the “manger in a box” from a visit to the Middle East before his retirement from the Foreign Service in the early ‘80s,
and somewhere along the way I found this Mexican version of the trinity, carved wise men and sheep. When my husband and I were in Sorrento two years ago, I added a shepherd and a new Jesus, bringing my total to three: as my Aunt Snooky said, we can all use more Jesuses.
Ray and I also visited Rome’s Piazza Navona. The Bernini statues are as iconic as the ristorante Tre Scalini, but none of the summer scene captured the intoxicating Christmas magic that eminates from Piazza Navona in December.
Here is how I recall one Sunday noon in December, 1961. I had just turned seven.
It was a cold four-block walk, even in the noonday sun. Everyone was home on Sunday, their cars parked on the sidewalk, so we went single file alongside the rough walls of the old palazzi. The smells of garlic and olive oil drifted out from behind the barred windows. A man scuttled by with panini for pranzo, pushing his way through a heavy wooden door; I got a glimpse of the stone courtyard and the broad stairway disappearing up into the gloom as the door slowly swung closed. A ribbon of bright blue sky ran between one side of the street and the other, interrupted only by laundry hung like flags.
My father wandered into the street with the movie camera on.
“Okay, Nancy, now you and the girls walk ahead. No, don’t look back at me. Just go ahead. Act natural.”
We heard this a lot.
The sticky sweet smell of fried dough and tangy sausages curled around the next corner, and there was Piazza Navona. A sea of canvass booths ran all along the inside track of the oval. People were everywhere. Bunches of balloons floated in the center of the crowd.
“Wow, it’s really full,” I said. “You can’t even see the Bernini.”
Dad asked me to repeat that for the camera.
Mom steered us into the crowd, with a kind of drawn out “Bob,” that meant please cut out the filming and take one of the girls. Susie reached back for his hand. We wandered from booth to booth, the four of us reflected in huge golden balls, pink balls, red balls. A bunch of grapes in silver glass shimmered in the sun, the light trapped inside like Tinkerbell. Birds with tails of spun glass were stopped mid-flight. Clear big glass bells hung quietly. Twirling stretches of green tinsel spiraled up endlessly. The sun danced in red and blue and green from booth to booth, marking the path like an airport runway at night.
As Mom paused to touch special pieces, the vendors would start in.
“Signora, un bell’ prezio.” The negotiation would begin with an opening price.
“Eh.” she’d answer.
The price would drop a bit.
“What would she offer?”
“I could pay…” she responded, loud enough for Dad to hear how good her Italian was now.
Done. The knotted string bag she’d stuffed into her purse began to take shape as it hung off her arm, round with bundles of newspaper protecting new ornaments for our tree.
“Prego, Signora, e buon’ natale.”
I knew these new pieces would be great additions to the ornaments Grandpa and Grandma had sent us from the Store in Winona, and to those Mom had packed up last Christmas when we lived in Bologna, along with the tinsel she had carefully peeled off the tree and wrapped in tin foil to be used again.
On the other side of the piazza, in the deep cool shadows under the canvas, was a whole new Christmas universe: the presepio. Hills of spongy green moss, sandy paths, rocky ledges, gnarly clumps of wood stuck in clay bases, tin foil waterfalls springing from cork mountain walls and wooden bridges crossing rivers of glass. An entire village with a winding street of little stones and houses and even some laundry hanging, and then down in the valley shepherds with their lambs slung across their shoulders, and a farm with pottery mules and oxen and white chickens and little yellow chicks, and the three Wise Men climbing a far hill in brilliant robes all gold and ruby and emerald, and silver angels spreading their wings to protect the little straw covered hut, the Madonna seated on her invisible chair and Joseph standing in the hay gripping his staff, both gazing at the empty cradle. No one puts Jesus out until he is born Christmas Eve.
“Well, girls, it may not be South Dakota but how about a little farm of your own?” Dad said.
Susie helped me choose the best pieces for our own presepio and soon Mommy’s bag was bursting with moss and bark and figurines, and I had figured out the best way to build. Susie had other ideas.
“Let’s make it under the tree,” she said.
“No, no, it needs to be up high,” I said. “On the trunk.”
My father had brought home from the office a big square of cardboard for art projects. It would fit right on top of the big trunk from Winona, ready for newspaper hills under a draped sheet.
“No,” Susie said.
My sister needed a lot of explanations, it seemed to me.
“Look,” I began, but my analysis was cut short by a squealing sound at the far end of the piazza.
“Bagpipes!” Mom smiled at us. “Just like your Robb ancestors in Scotland.” She took us each by the hand and strode off in the direction of the noise. My father followed. I bet he had the camera running again.
The squealing dimmed to a long whine that reeled us in. A wavering tune balanced on top of the hum. Scotland. I wondered if the musicians would be wearing the plaid skirts like the ones Mommy showed us in Winona.
The crowd had encircled the players.
“Look, Bob,” Mom said. “Farmers?”
“Shepherds, actually,” Daddy said authoritatively.
Shepherds. What were they doing in the middle of Rome? Someone made room for us blonde ragazze. The green loden wool of strangers’ coats scratched gently at my cheeks as we squeezed through.
We popped out of the crowd in front of two men in woolen hats and leather vests, their legs wrapped in sheepskin bound by leather ropes. Their boots drooped around their ankles. No skirts here.
They each carried a pouch from which they were squeezing music with their elbows. Their bulging cheeks pushed air into through a long instrument like one of our recorders, and the shepherds modulated the sound by covering the holes with thei fingers protruding from their tipless gloves.
The gentle tune was repeating now, the notes flowing simply into each other, the melody floating up into the air with winter’s breath. I turned to look for Dad. When he lowered the movie camera, I tugged at his sleeve.
“Can we learn this song?”
“Yes, please?” Susie said.
“Well, sure,” he said, smiling at Susie and me. Mom was beaming.
“That would be very nice, girls.”
The bagpipes whined to a stop and the last note hung in the still cold air. One of the men pulled off his hat and carried it around the gathered crowd.
“Grazie, grazie, buon natale, grazie signora, buon natale.”
Dad dropped a few lire into the hat while Susie and I hung back next to Mom. The melody of the shepherds’ song rang in my ears as we walked slowly back to the car.
Twenty-two years later, our Italian friend Roberto Lucic gifted my husband and me the lyrics to the song we heard that day in Piazza Navona,“Tu scendi da le stelle”,
Listen to it here sung by very dear Italian children in 2011.