I cannot think of anywhere I’d rather be at Christmas than here. There are so many things I love about December in Tuscany, it’s hard to know where to start. So let me tell you about just how exciting supermarkets are (it’s 2020 so don’t pretend you have more going on than me). Gift giving at Christmas, like most things here, revolves around food.
Supermarkets sell baskets of all shapes and sizes along with straw filling and foil wrap. There are vast stands of panettone, wines and delicious festive treats so that personalised gifts can be put together in hampers. Even more exciting are the home produced treats that come our way like the divine olive oil we received last year from the local plumber which had a handwritten label on that said, ‘Olio del Nonno’ – oil produced by his grandpa. A health conscious friend gave us a fruit hamper because he said we’d need it after all the festivities – we weren’t convinced but it was appreciated.
I myself go into a baking frenzy making gingerbread cookies, mince pies and Florentines to wrap up and give out. My son says Christmas truly begins when I am standing in the kitchen at 11 pm effing and blinding about how I’m never doing this again and yet here we are once more and I’ve already have one batch of mince pies in the freezer.
This year especially, I am trying hard to buy from our precious local shops, which have been hit hard by both lockdown and Amazon in equal measures. It’s amazing what treasures can be found locally, and an added bonus is that they all offer free gift wrapping. This threw me initially because at first sight a Benetton shopping bag with a bow on, doesn’t look that special but I have learnt the hard way that if you remove it from the bag and wrap it yourself it will a) look like you are re-gifting and b) be impossible to return. It also saves me from the annual ritual of wrapping the first three gifts beautifully followed by the production of a bundle of bedraggled, sorry looking parcels and endless cursing about where the end of the Sellotape is.
Christmas Eve is when the magic begins. After cramming the fridge full of food and prepping for Christmas day lunch, we head for Anghiari at around 5pm to see one of my favourite events, the Vespa Club Santa Parade. Around 30 Santa’s on beautiful vintage Vespas covered in fairy lights, drive through the town and park up in the piazza to hand out toys to all the children. It is marvellous. Everyone comes out for an aperitivo and to wish one another Merry Christmas before going home for dinner. Every year I have a second prosecco and then almost forget to collect the turkey from the butcher. Every year I stand in line at the butcher’s wondering why the vegetarian always gets lumbered with this job, but the butcher’s expert advice is invaluable with precise cooking instructions and timing.
Traditionally dinner is at around 9pm on Christmas Eve and is meat free so usually fish. After that there is gift exchanging and family time before heading off to midnight mass along with the rest of the town. I must confess that I have yet to join in with this, as it’s not my cup of tea, but I do like the idea of it. We usually have Christmas Eve at my parents in law with all the wonderful Italian traditions and then Christmas Day, everyone comes to us for a full-blown English Christmas lunch. The first time my Italian brother-in-law tried it he said, ‘hmm it’s a lot of different flavours on one plate!’ – rather annoying to hear, but I couldn’t really deny it.
There’s one other event that is so good, it’s almost impossible to describe on paper as no one really believes just how fantastic it is, until they see it for themselves. There’s a tiny little village close by called Le Ville, that is a part of Monterchi, another lovely hilltop town and home to the polenta festival I mentioned in an earlier blog.
Every August, the planning committee get together to start organising the live nativity that takes place over six evenings at Christmas. It starts at around 17.30 with shuttle buses dropping people at the entrance to join the queue to get in. All the homeowners keep their shutters closed to add the authenticity of the experience. Local volunteers dress up and stay in character as you step back in time to walk through an incredible recreation of an ancient town, with weavers, leather workers and herbal remedies in stalls. (Side note: We actually have a rather beautiful house for sale just passed where they hold the slave auction https://www.itcasa.it/en/immobile/casa-ripa-22474/).
Once you’ve walked through the town complete with Roman soldiers and the wealthy elite being pampered by servants, you come to the top of a hill where all you can see are the oil lit candles that guide the way through the rest of the experience, past 2 tier wooden homesteads with live animals in pens outside, shepherds, fisherman (well of course there’s a water feature).
Then there is the leper colony. Now I’ve often wondered who you have to offend in the committee to get stuck as a leper year after year but in reality, they probably have the best roles as they can really layer up under those white robes and it is always bitingly cold.
Moving on from the lepers you reach the magical sight of Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus. Each evening they are played by a different family with a baby born that year which makes it even more special. By this point, the cold is usually getting the better of me, but I know I still have the three wise men to look forward to before reaching the end and a warm glass of mulled wine before heading off for a pizza in a toasty warm restaurant.
My beloved family are a ‘seen it once’ kind of group whereas I love the tradition and repetition of these events so my solution has been that every year I manage to find some newbies to I take along so I can watch the absolute awe and delight on their faces when they realise how truly spectacular it is. Yep, I cannot think of anywhere I’d rather be than here at Christmas.
Wishing you all a spectacular but safe lockdown Christmas and here’s to 2021 being a wee bit more sociable than this year has been.