Thursday, December 25, 2014

The Year Santa Claus Came to Town

Santa Claus

We didn’t really see him, but he had been there; the note said “Love from Santa Claus”.

December of 1982 had not started off well at all. My husband had had another bout of his disease, and while I was visiting him in the hospital on December 3, thieves had come a-calling, leaving their “calling card” where I could easily find it: they had kicked in the door, leaving it dangling from one hinge, with a big hole where a foot had gone through it. Not finding the light switch, they had lit a candle; I knew this because it had burned a hole in my bedspread when it fell from the candle-holder.

Further inspection revealed that they had stolen such an incredible mixture of goods that it seemed the Grinch had come to Bologna, rather than Whoville, and early to boot:saanta claus grinch the contents of our refrigerator, a catalytic heater, a roll-away bed, two blankets, my husband’s guns and ammunition (he was a licensed hunter), a box of candles, several pairs of jeans, and two rings. Most of the booty had probably been carried out in the missing suitcase. Other clothing had been strewn all over the house.

While waiting for the Carabineers (Italian Military police) to arrive, I attempted to at least clean off the bed; that was when I discovered the waxy hole left by the burning candle. The whole thing seemed so hopeless, that after the Carabineers had come and gone, I sat and thought. I was alone, the door was broken in half, there was no food left in the house, it was freezing outside and in (about -3°C; 27°F), and the thieves had taken away our heater and blankets.

The next day, the Carabineers called me to let me know they had caught the thieves and had found some of the stuff, so my husband got permission to leave the hospital briefly. We recognized some of the objects presented and the Carabineers informed us that they had caught the thieves the night before; the few items, which included the rifles and ammunition and the suitcase with the missing jeans, were all that had been found.

Christmas 1982

Pickings had been a bit slim during the rest of December, but a friend of ours had invited us over for Christmas “dinner”. Served around 1:30, it was a full five-course meal and took about two hours to consume. After the last bite of fruit, we sat and sang Christmas carols until it was time to go to the cinema by our home with a group of friends.

Of course, half of Bologna’s citizenry had made the decision to see the same movie: Disney’s Cinderella. We arrived halfway through the movie, and there was standing room only. The snow dictated that we go in and stand. I was wearing heels and at some point took them off because of sore feet. How ironic it was when, right after Cinderella lost her shoe, another blonde (me) lost one of her shoes! We found it – two rows of seats ahead of where we were standing – before going to sit and watch the movie from the beginning.

The sidewalks had been swept clear of the snow, so we decided to walk the short distance to our apartment, stopping to admire the beautifully decorated shop windows along the way. Approaching the portone (big outside door) we thought we heard the sound of sleigh bells, but that was silly; Italians didn’t go for sleigh rides in the middle of large cities with two-lane streets. It was unheard of!

As we walked down the corridor toward the apartment, we saw something in front of the apartment door. Hurrying to the door, we found two large boxes wrapped in Christmas paper. Excited and curious, we dragged the boxes through the door and tore off the wrapping paper. We were stunned by what we found: lots of food, a blanket, a new gas burning heater and, at the very bottom of the box, a note that said, “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year”. Yes, that was the year Santa Claus truly came to town.


© Mary Purpari December 25, 2014 All Rights Reserved

Christmas Caroling: a Bridge over language Barriers


Singing is in my DNA; my mother said that when I was born I didn’t howl in the traditional, time-honored manner: she insists that my first breath came while singing a Renata Tebaldi-ish high ‘C’. From that moment on, music has always been an important part of my life, but never more so than at Christmas.

Christmas caroling became a family tradition the year I was in the third grade. We started out with my parents, my four siblings and me, each contributing to the best of our ability. The attempt had such a great success that the tradition continued through the years, the choir growing as we added family members and then school friends.

Christmas caroling continued even after I married, both in Bologna and Mistretta. Every year in Bologna, between 1979 and 1983, our group was invited to sing in front of the giant Christmas tree in Piazza Nettuno (Neptune Square), and although caroling is not a common happenstance in Italy, our efforts were enjoyed by our listeners as much as we enjoyed singing. Then, we would go listen to Midnight Mass concerts which included Handel’s Messiah, Gregorian Chants and various others.

However, one of my favorite memories of Italian Christmas caroling took place in Mistretta, a tiny town nestled in the Sicilian Nebrodi mountain chain. One year, shortly after our arrival in the town, the head priest asked our church choir if we wanted to sing during the Midnight Mass that year. After conferring with the other church members we decided to sing a beautiful little song called “Stars Were Gleaming” taken from the children’s hymnal.

Finally, 11:00 pm, December 24th arrived. The children had napped and, after hours of practice, we were ready to face a public of over 3,000 people. After dressing ourselves in our warmest clothing, we set off toward the church. We had left a little early because it had started to snow earlier and we needed to proceed slowly– everything in Mistretta is downhill, even when it was uphill – in order to avoid a nasty fall on the slippery cobblestone road. We also wanted to get there before the rest of the city showed up: seats were at a premium and we wanted to sit close to the front so we could be ready to sing when called.

At 11:55, we looked around and found ourselves surrounded by a huge crowd. Anticipation was high as the head priest, Padre Michele walked in with another priest we had never seen before, and the excitement was tangible. The little children, dressed in their costumes for the Christmas story, stopped fidgeting and turned their eyes toward Padre Michele as he stepped toward the microphone. The tingling in our fingers was not entirely a product of the freezing cold…

The minutes ticked on as we sat waiting anxiously for our turn to sing. A new priest had just arrived that day; he led the children around the chapel from “inn to inn” and ending at the manger scene at the entrance of the building. Once “Mary and Joseph” were settled in their places in the manger, Padre Michele announced that “our Mormon brothers and sisters will now sing for us”. Our moment had arrived. We stood up, knees shaking, and turned to face the congregation.

Voices quavering (was it the cold?) we began “Stars were gleaming, shepherds dreaming; and the night was dark and chill…” Our voices gained strength as we continued, “Onward going, gleaming, glowing, leading still, our Christmas star!” As we turned back towards our seats, we were surprised to hear another voice singing the same song, in another language; turning back once again, we listened, mesmerized as the new priest sang our carol with gusto.

After the mass, our group went and spoke with the new priest. We learned that he had arrived in Italy only days before from Poland, and that the carol we had sung that night was a Polish carol. He thanked us for singing that particular hymn and making him feel at home in a foreign land. And from that time, thanks to Christmas caroling, Padre Tomasz was our friend.


© Mary Purpari December 25, 2014 All Rights reserved