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Keeping With the National Image : Christmas in Italy Blends Old and New

December 23, 1987|WILLIAM D. MONTALBANO | Times Staff Writer

ROME — A 1987 Christmas card from Italy--if Italians sent many cards--would show a northern European Christmas tree muscling in on a weathered Nativity scene that smacks more of a medieval Roman tavern than a stable in Nazareth.

This year's glimpse of Christmas in Italy might even include Santa Claus. He would be elegant "Babbo Natale"--slimmer, darker and dressed in a better-cut red suit than the bluff and portly Arctic sleigh driver beloved of American children.

Christmas trees and Santa Claus are relative newcomers to Italy, bit players who have wandered onto the stage without capturing the spotlight. Their arrival may be evidence of the internationalization and commercialization of Christmas, but in Italy imported Saint Nick is hardly competition for an Italian saint, and a tree is no substitute for an artisan's creche.

Once again, it seems, resilient Italy is stoking its reputation as a country that changes most while changing least. Breathtakingly transformed in less than half a century from a backward agrarian society to a prosperous industrial nation, Italy remains one place where the new is absorbed without sacrificing the old.

Yule Trees Everywhere

Suddenly, the Christmas tree, a tradition with roots in northern Europe, is everywhere in Rome. Trees sparkle with splendor outside the ancient Pantheon, in the Piazza Venezia at the very heart of the Eternal City and even in St. Peter's Square, where Pope John Paul II inaugurated the Vatican Christmas season at a concert of carols by an Austrian choir.

Shopkeepers' trees line crowded uptown streets like the Via del Corso and the Via Frattina where well-heeled Italians buy, but prudent foreigners wed to the anemic dollar merely window-shop these days. There is no tree in the Piazza Navona, but plenty of Christmas stalls where made-in-Taiwan tree lights sell briskly at $15 for a string of 20.

The rise of the Christmas tree has been gradual but steady, to the point that it no longer seems an alien inspiration.

"I was about to say that we've always had trees, but come to think of it, I don't remember any at all from when I was a child," said businesswoman Graziela Baccari, who has two college-age sons.

In Italy, trees still play minor chord to a concert of creches, which is claimed as an Italian invention. Francis of Assisi, Italy's patron saint, is said to have begun the Nativity scene tradition on Dec. 25, 1223, in the country town of Greccio.

Since then, creche construction has entranced seven centuries of Italian artisans. They have built with homemade flavor. The life-sized creche on the Spanish Steps this year shows the stable of a medieval Roman inn, flanked, appropriately, by two restaurants.

In a city that has marked Christmas through 2,000 years of changing fashion, there are Gothic creches, baroque creches, rococo creches and surrealistic creches.

The Nativity scene in Gesu Church comes complete with an electric star that shoots through the night sky and a brook bubbling not far from the holy-water font. The Vatican creche is properly traditional, but on Via del Gesu, the shepherds, Magi and animals worship a Christ Child smiling from the hulk of an abandoned car.

Italian accommodation of new with old this Christmas extends to other national passions such as food and road machines.

Cloning the Artichoke

Up in the north, one enterprising agrobusiness has begun cloning the artichoke, a vegetable nearly as revered among Italians as pasta. Science marches on, but Italian cooks seldom stir. In Roman restaurants, you can have artichokes, cloned or natural, any way you like them--as long as they are either alla giudea-- deep-fried, or alla Romana-- stuffed with herbs and garlic.

This is the last Christmas that it will be possible to give a new Vespa, the two-wheeled scooter that first took millions of Italian couples onto the road. A status symbol in the building years after World War II, Vespa sales have sagged in an increasingly four-wheeled Italy. Now, the manufacturer, Piaggio, is scrapping its Vespa in favor of a streamlined two-wheeler with traffic-busting agility and, in another sign of the times, a storage compartment for a crash helmet. The new machine is called the Cosa--The Thing. It looks a lot like a Vespa.

At the other end of the scale, some of its customers think Ferrari is celebrating its 40th anniversary this Christmas season by mixing old and new. What's new is a 470-horsepower machine called the F-40, which will do 0-125 m.p.h. in 12 seconds and has a top speed of 202 m.p.h.

An F-40 costs $316,000, including tax.

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