No matter the holiday you celebrate, spending the holidays abroad is something that everyone should do at least once.
Three years ago I lived and studied abroad in Macerata, a medieval hilltop town in Le Marche region of Italy. Unlike well-known regions like Tuscany, Emilia Romagna, and Lazio, Le Marche is remarkably tourist-free. It's a breathtakingly beautiful and quiet region stretching from the Appenine Mountains to Adriatic beach towns. Macerata boasts a few beautiful churches, a university founded in 1280, and a world-class opera amphitheater, but remains a close-knit, sleepy university town perched up on a hill. While I could have spent my time in the big cities, Macerata felt like my Italian home away from home. On a clear day from my apartment just outside of the walls, I could see the Adriatic Sea about a 30-minute drive away. I loved watching the seasons change in Macerata. Summer, Fall, Winter— no matter the season it was always beautiful.
During a weekend trip to Florence, Italy over Thanksgiving weekend, my friends and I flipped on the TV. After three months of being removed from American culture, seeing the madness of Black Friday on CNN came as a shock. The scenes of Black Friday shoppers stampeding the doors of mega-stores were sensationalized, sure, but it was a reminder of how differently the holidays are celebrated in America versus other parts of the world. In the midst of focusing on what we want for Christmas and getting our Black Friday deals, it’s easy to lose sight of what this time of year really means: simply celebrating the holidays with family and friends. If you ever have the chance to spend the holidays abroad, it may make for some of the best memories of your life. I wouldn't have traded my days in Macerata, Italy for anything. Should you need a little convincing, here are a few of my reasons as to why you should spend a Christmas abroad...
One of my favorite parts about spending the holidays in Macerata was that the town was nearly void of the advertisements or the typical holiday commercialism that bombard us every December in America.
As one may predict, medieval hilltop towns aren't exactly equipped with endless outlets and power sources to deck the halls Clark Griswold-style. Macerata didn't even receive electricity and running water in every home until the 1980s. And so, the elegance of celebrating the holidays in Macerata was in its simplicity. Every day that I walked through Macerata that December, I was reminded of the beauty of celebrating Christmas in Italy— a Christmas tree in the main piazza, star lights sparkled above the main streets, shops decorated their storefront windows with chocolate displays and nativity scenes, and for one weekend, the entirety of the city within the walls turned into one sprawling Christmas market filled with local antique sellers and artisans. It wasn’t Christmas overkill. It was just simple and elegant.
keeping the spirit OF THE HOLIDAYS alive
As we grow older the holidays start to lose their meaning in other ways. The magic and excitement we felt as children is replaced by worrying about everything we need to do before the holidays even arrive. The holidays become more of a check off the to-do list, rather than a time of celebration. My first time experiencing the holidays abroad in Italy, I felt like a kid again. Suddenly everything about the season— the festivals, the Christmas market, the beautiful lights— it was all new and exciting. Experiencing another culture’s traditions helped spark the joy of the holidays and to re-prioritize my own traditions in more ways than one. There are so many reasons to celebrate holidays abroad, but this has to be one of the best.
THE ART OF SLOWING DOWN
One of the biggest lessons I learned during my time in Italy was learning how to slow down and focusing on my time spent with family and friends. The most convenient convenience store in Macerata is located just outside of one of the central piazzas, Piazza della Libertà. As it happens, the store was closed for every saint or feast day, which, (being that this is Catholic Italy and it was December) denotes nearly every single day of the month. Now, I'm not sure if the family actually observed each holy day or if they simply took it as an excuse to close up shop. (They were hardly ever open so I never got the chance to meet them and find out.) But after I got over my frustration of just trying to buy a pack of stamps, I began to appreciate that this family prioritized their time spent together over everything else. Their commitment to each other and to their community was really refreshing.
THE SENSE OF COMMUNITY
La Passeggiata is a popular time in Italy where families gather together on Sunday evenings (typically) and take a walk through the neighborhood. Although La Passeggiata is a year-round custom, it seemed to be particularly special during Christmastime. Everyone from Macerata bundled up, strolled around the centro storico, chatted with neighbors, and waved hello to their favorite shopkeepers underneath the Christmas lights. Sometimes we would stop for a glass of wine or pop into our favorite cozy, artisan chocolate shop, Magna Cacao, for a cup of the best hot chocolate this world has ever seen. La Passeggiata is one of the cultural parts of living in Italy that I miss the most. It was all about gathering with friends and neighbors, and just spending time together.
After my last Passeggiata in Italy, everyone in the community gathered for mass and then a festival around a roaring bonfire in the center of the piazza. Multicolored candle lanterns were passed to the crowd, everyone sang Christmas songs, and the children held hands and danced around the fire. My American heart grew three sizes that day.
In talking with my friends about their favorite Macerata holiday memories, my friend Matty also loved feeling welcomed into the community at the festivals.
“…We went into this tiny village where the whole community was celebrating the Christmas season! There were booths of crafts selling Christmas-y items (especially the Christmas Witch!) and Christmas foods: panettone, roasted chestnuts, and, of course, Italian Christmas carols. Towards the end of the night, the musicians that were playing started cranking out the Italian national anthem. It was just magical to be surrounded by 100% locals with their families in this village, where I could minutely communicate with anyone, but yet still feel so a part of their community. I knew at that point in time that if I wasn't home for Christmas, it would be ok—I was so happy in Italy!”
A FOCUS ON GIVING and gratitude
My friends from studying abroad are still close and keep in touch often. We all have different stories of why we loved the holidays in Italy, but the underline theme from our stories is one of above and beyond generosity from our Italian friends and host families. One of my favorite stories is from my friend Shannon who became like a daughter to her host family in Italy. Her host family graciously decorated their home and served a special Christmas Eve dinner a week early so that she could celebrate with them.
“I was incredibly lucky during my study abroad trip to Macerata, Italy to have an Italian family adopt me. I became close with my Italian language partner, Chiara, and she and her sister would pick me up from my apartment in the city every Sunday for a long lunch at her home in the countryside. Their mother was the sweetest little Italian woman who spoke not one word of English. She would cook us an incredible meal every Sunday that lasted four hours and always ended with dessert, then espresso, and then Kinder chocolate because I was always "troppa magra." (Too skinny.) Chiara's mom often asked me if there was any food I wanted to learn to make and I, being a little overly obsessed with Christmas, asked to learn how to make Tortellini en Brodo, a traditional Italian Christmas Eve dish. I didn't realize just how traditional my little family was until Chiara expressed to me that they have never had this dish other than on Christmas Eve… On one of the last Sundays before I left for home, my Italian family surprised me with an early Christmas. Not only did I learn to make Tortellini en Brodo, but Chiara's mom also prepared other Christmas foods for dinner and decorated the house. It brought tears to my eyes to be taken care of so well. What really hit me was after dinner when Chiara, her sister Katerina, and I were getting ready to go shopping and their mom handed each of us twenty Euros. I protested, but she insisted, "Tu sei mia figlia Americana." (You are my American daughter) and as such, I got twenty Euros too. I loved sharing in Italian traditions while studying abroad, and food is a huge part of those traditions.”
- Shannon M.
Whether it was times spent with our host families, close friends, or even strangers, the spirit of giving in Macerata was so apparent that I was continuously blown away by how generous everyone was with their time and unexpected but thoroughly thoughtful gifts.
On one of our last nights in Italy, my friends and I met in the loft of our favorite coffee shop/ bar. The table next to us, all Italian students of the same age, were celebrating Christmas with their university friends before they all were to go home for the holidays. They asked us if we were American and if we had ever tried panettone, the traditional Italian Christmas fruitcake. They shared their cake with us and we ended up spending over an hour talking with them and telling stories.
That's the spirit of giving and graciousness that I found while spending the holidays in Italy.
No matter what holidays you choose to celebrate, there is so much that can be learned from spending one abroad. The new traditions, the spirit of giving, the sense of community, and getting back the meaning of Christmas during my time in Macerata has always been one of my favorite memories. To my Italian friends who may be reading this, you made all of our holidays so special and we could never thank you enough. Grazie mille.
Have you ever celebrated the holidays abroad? Let me know in the comments.
Happy holidays and Buon Natale!
P.S. Next week's hint? A New Year's Day tradition that's taking 2015 to the next level.