Christmas in our culture has both a religious and a secular appeal, and many of us have stories about Christmases past. Here is one.
When I was 20 years old, a friend Gary and I took a year out from university and travelled in Europe. A lot of students did that in the 1960s. It is called a gap year now but back then we really did not have a name for it. I had never been out of my home province of Saskatchewan, and I had never been on an airplane. So, it was an exciting time.
We got to Paris in October and suddenly realized that we had all day, every day, to spend in new and strange places where everyone else was going about their daily lives. Visiting museums, galleries and cathedrals was fine for few hours, but not for all day. We missed our friends, we had no classes to attend, no part-time jobs to occupy us. We longed for those things we had taken for granted, including our families. We almost decided to return home but after all the hype among our friends about our leaving, it would have been a humiliating thing to do.
Those were days before email, texting, or even cheap long-distance calls. I never once called my family during almost six months in Europe. All my contact was by post card or letter.
I remember being concerned about how I would feel when Christmas arrived with me so far from home. I kept a diary on that trip. I have not looked at it for years, but I dug it out recently to recall in more detail what Christmas was like for me in 1968.
Rome in December
On December 22, we arrived in Rome. The next morning, I rushed over to American Express which acted as a post office for people who used the company’s travelers cheques. There was only one letter for me, and I found that disheartening. All that day, I traipsed around the city, to the Spanish Steps, the Trevi Fountain, and the Roman Forum – but my heart was not in it.
We were staying in a youth hostel, but we found out that it was not going to be open on Christmas Day, and that we would have to leave and find our own accommodation. That alarmed us, but we learned that some other young people who we had met at the hostel were going to stay in a pensione, a private kind of boarding house. It was called Mama Gizzia’s and was located on the third or fourth floor of an old building. There really was a Mama Gizzia, an older Italian lady who was short and rotund. She did not look like my mother, but I was comforted by her warm presence. It was a homely kind of place, just what I needed on December 24, 1968.
I do not remember how many of us stayed there on Christmas Eve, but my diary describes how six of us went to midnight mass at St. Peter’s Basilica. The weather was brisk, but not cold. The outdoor courtyard at St. Peter’s was immense and the church’s dome was bathed in light. Although we were scruffy students, I have no recall of security. There must have been some, but it cannot have been prominently displayed. The church is cavernous inside. I had never heard of Bernini’s sculpted bronze canopy above the main altar. I found it astonishing. I still do.
When we got back to our pensione we had a party, which Mama Gizzia said we could do. Someone had bought wine and someone else had Christmas cake. My friend and I splurged. We bought ham, cheese, bread, fruit, pastry, and chocolate to share with our fellow travelers.
My diary entry, written on December 25 reads: “Christmas has turned out well with a good bunch of kids here and the Italian lady is great. It is not quite the warm and fuzzy feeling that I would have at home but it’s probably more interesting.”
A good life
Every year now, on Christmas Eve, I watch at least a part of the midnight service from St. Peter’s on television. As I tune in, I remember that night in Rome in 1968. It has been a good life since then.