At first, no one thought that it would be a problem spending the fall semester in Florence, Italy, and returning home for the holidays only a few days before Christmas. We were, after all, a group of friends from New York City who, we thought, shouldn't really care much about the holiday.
Even though both pairs of his grandparents had survived the Nazi concentration camps, Aaron was Jewish only by default; it had been years since he had even been to temple. Imani, a tall, stunning black psychology student who supplemented her income by flying around the world modeling clothes, had been raised Muslim. Moji, whose mother was one of New York City's leading black-history scholars, celebrated Kwanzaa but claimed not to believe in anything. And I was a typical white American male, too liberally educated to be described as anything more faithful than a lapsed Presbyterian.
However, together in Italy as Christmas approached, we felt increasingly out of place in that abundantly Catholic nation. It wasn't the religion that affected us; it was the nation's approach to the holiday.
While the Italians pay plenty of lip service to the collective idea that the true spirit of Christmas has been lost in the morass of consumerism and merchandising, to four transplanted New Yorkers there was nothing but true spirit on display. Vendors sold freshly roasted chestnuts for what amounted to pennies a bag along the streets. Images of Mary and the infant Jesus were even more abundant than usual in this city that was a clearinghouse for nativities. And the local shoppers weren't shopping; families and couples seemed to be out looking at things in the stores and then passing on, hands empty of all but each other's fingertips.
It was more than we could collectively bear. We needed mass-marketed good cheer and wintry images crammed down our throats. We wanted holiday blockbuster films and needless amounts of food offered to us by homemakers wearing cringingly festive sweatshirts. The craving for a tacky and debauched office holiday party might have caused a group conversion to corporate jobs if it could have helped. "To hell with the Nativity and the chestnuts -- tell us what to buy, damn it!" we cried to ourselves. "We're Americans."
Finally, it was too much for any of us to endure. A genuine, American-style, boom-economy holiday shopping spree had to be organized immediately. The true spirit of Christmas as we knew it was out there, and with our credit cards, we could own it.
We decided to begin in one of Florence's
department stores, assuming mistakenly
that more than the small, quaint shops
that lined the streets, a department store would understand mass shopping. They also had lights and ornaments hung in the windows. Our error was assuming that these trappings indicated a connection with the American spirit of Christmas. In reality, the department store, for all of its class and polish, catered primarily to Florentines, the tourists preferring the more atmospheric establishments.
It seemed like things were off to a good start when the store clerk approached us and offered his assistance. This, at last, was a holiday tradition we all shared. His solicitous gaze enveloped us in a feeling of gooey, Christmas cheer. He understood: We celebrate by spending money.
Aaron, the most fluent among us, explained as best he could that what we were looking for was a traditional, American way to celebrate Christmas. It was all about gifts and presents given at the office, through the mail, under the tree. Icons of a mythical winter.
The clerk caught on immediately. "Aspetta, aspetta," he nodded, "wait, wait." His smiled the smile of a man about to make money, and it was as luminous to us as a star on top of a tree. He tapped another attendant on the shoulder, and together they hurried to the back of the store.
Our impression that we had come to the right place was strengthened when, while we waited for our savior to return to us, we noticed two young Italian men looking at gowns, obviously gift shopping. Imani, overjoyed at the display of consumerism joining fashion, joined them. Immediately, the men responded to the tall, beautiful black woman who had taken an interest in their activities, and began offering her their compliments.
It's a strange thing for tourists to get used to, the way that many Italian men are so blatantly flirtatious with American women. Usually, the situation is harmless, but as a group of friends, we always preferred to err on the side of caution. Moji immediately joined Imani's side, and Aaron and I moved in closer.
Gesturing towards both Moji and Imani, the two men explained that their beautiful bodies were almost like those of the women that they were shopping for. Christmas gifts. Did the belle donne think that the gowns were wonderful? Would they be both comfortable and flattering?
Responding almost equally to the men's words as well as their willingness to spend money, Imani lifted the gowns off the rack, handed one to Moji, and said that they would try them on, so that the men could see. In an instant they were in the changing rooms, and Aaron and I were left smiling awkwardly at the two Italians.
After a while, to fill the silence, I started whistling "Jingle Bells." At "bells on bobtails ring," Aaron joined in, singing the words. When we reached the chorus, we heard Moji and Imani join the song, and all of us looked toward the sound of their voices.
They emerged, slowly and in perfect synchronization from the dressing room doors, wearing the gowns that the men had been considering. And as they approached us, somehow "Jingle Bells" became a slow, bluesy ballad, sung breathily by the two ladies - a duo that might have been called "The Noelles."
While the Italian men regained their animation, talking excitedly about beauty and form, Aaron and I heard the store clerk behind us. We turned around to his even more generous smile, and he gestured behind him, where three attendants carried several large packages.
Like Magi, they stepped forward one by one, laying their gifts on our outstretched arms: an enormous box containing an unassembled artificial Christmas tree, several cartons of colorful glassy bulbs, and two boxes of lights that promised to blink "with regularity." Beaming, they stepped behind the clerk, confident that they had succeeded in delivering the spirit of Christmas to this group of American students.
During the course of this grand presentation, Moji and Imani had returned to the dressing rooms, leaving Aaron and me alone with the store clerk to handle the situation. Aaron looked at me, his eyes reflected and distorted in the red and gold bulbs held under his chin. "Well, what do you think?"
We bought the tree, and the decorations, and the lights. Moji and Imani joined us at the register with the gowns they had modeled, deciding that since it was Christmas, they would at least buy themselves presents. Before we left the store, they ran back into the dressing rooms and put them on.
It seemed that, despite our best efforts, the
true spirit of Christmas as we desired it
would elude us. Where were the
advertisements, the lines, and the media cues to tell us what to buy? Where were the nieces and nephews with comprehensive lists of things that we could purchase to make them happy? We felt lost and isolated as we returned to the street, and headed towards a bar to drown our holiday blues. The owner, familiar with us, offered us free caffe corretto - coffee spiked with grappa -- to lift our spirits. We insisted, almost belligerently, that we pay for it.
And so early in the morning, after deciding that it was time at last to end our quest for an American Christmas in an Italian city, we left the bar to walk Imani home. Along the way, we began to cross the moonlit Piazza Santa Croce. And suddenly, there, in front of the barren facade of the enormous church and under the stern and disapproving gaze of a statue of Dante, we discovered that during the day, the city of Florence had decided to erect an ice skating rink.
Stretching luminously across the open space of the piazza, the rink was bordered by a flimsy waist-high fence, which I stepped over and pushed aside so that the others could join me on the ice. Aaron set down the boxes he was carrying, and slowly, testing our balance, we began to skate in our shoes.
It was something that none of us really believed was happening -- a deserted piazza in one of the world's most famous cities, covered with a virginal sheet of ice, skated upon by four American students. Moji and Imani glided like designer-clad angels while Aaron and I steadied them. We held hands, spun each other around, fell, and sang "Jingle Bells" some more.
But after a few minutes of this, without saying a word to each other, we found ourselves stopping. Tearing open the boxes, we began to assemble the plastic Christmas tree, and decorate it with unlit lights and faintly sparkling glass bulbs.
Then, fearless of the hour, we stayed until early in the morning, talking to one another, laughing, recreating the meaning of our respective holidays, skating purgatorial circles around the artificial tree. We left it there finally, in the center of the ice rink, under the baleful gaze of Dante, and went home to sleep.