And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window's hue,
A Baby in an ox's stall ?
This afternoon, I put out my own crib, with its French pottery figures, faceless, each one signed on the base; and I add my usual motley crew of various-sized, variously able-bodied exotic and domestic animals to join in; the one-horned Highland Cattle; the three-legged dog; the donkey with a match-stick repaired leg.
Compare that with Palermo where I spent a week in early December! The city is truly a city of presepi (cribs). Very few Father Christmases, just one or two temptingly blown-up monstrosities outside tourist-tat shops (oh, for a hat-pin!). In the main, however, the decoration for this time of year is the crib. They feature, of course, universally in churches, some in front of the altar, others in a side chapel.
But virtually every shop has a crib of some sort in the window.
We stopped in awe at a mobile one; the ox is chewing the hay, and the Baby and his mother are both opening their arms in welcome.
Then there is a shop where you can buy a crib they have designed from every part of the world.
And there is a Fondazione which I came upon, completely by chance; smart-suited young men and women were standing at the doors of a palazzo. Going in, I was guided round the exhibition of… what else, presepi! The Fondazione was a social enterprise which gave opportunities to schools and organisations in the towns and villages outside Palermo to display their own ideas about the Nativity scene, including disabled groups, groups using recycled materials, salt, biscuits, fruit.
The City is brightly coloured with brilliant poinsettias and cyclamen everywhere; the poinsettia, such a delicate plant that care requirements insist that it should be kept out of draughts (we call them Mr Woodhouse, if you remember Jane Austen's Emma) does well in the usually mild conditions in Palermo. Forget Christmas lights - there were some structures in place over the pedestrianised streets, but they remained unlit.
No, what people are enjoying, during the passeggiata (the evening stroll in so many Italian cities), are the colourful streets, and not only enjoying them, but perhaps also thinking about the scenes which illuminate the real meaning of Christmas, the arrival of the vulnerable baby, our Saviour, soon to set the world on fire.
To finish the John Betjeman lines,
And is it true ? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,
No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare -
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.
Judy Dixey is a blogger and contributor to ICN. To see more pictures of the cribs in Palermo and read her blog visit: https://judydixey.wordpress.com/
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