Why you should care
Because calendars and dates are relative, but customs are freaking real.
Imagine Santa Claus wearing a pair of flip-flops, bright red surf shorts and a straw hat as he makes his way from village to village on the back of a donkey beneath a scorching sun, traversing fluorescent green fields rather than gliding through snowy plains on a reindeer-drawn sled.
I mean, what’s with making Santa work during summer?
Christmas without winter is like a night sky without stars. It just wouldn’t be the same without a cozy living room with a fireplace to cuddle in front of, while snow falls outside.
But who says Yuletide fun and treats “must” be in winter only? That Santa lives in Antarctica and not the tropics? For most everyone in the world — including the Chinese, who have their own New Year’s Eve, but if you dared try to shift the most consumerist feast in the universe, they’d kill you — Christmas falls in December. Whatever latitude you’re at — Australia, Antarctica or Indonesia — makes no difference.
If this happened in Naples, it would be a sacrilege.
Hold on … except for one little place in northern Italy that celebrates the holiday during summer. The faraway enchanted valley of Ossola is famous for its topsy-turvy Christmas.
Tourists might find it appealing and picturesque, but it can be quite quirky. “My wife has a cottage here where we spend our holidays, but seeing this ‘show’ really puts me off. I’m a traditionalist, a real southerner. If this happened in Naples, it would be a sacrilege,” complains Giovanni Capuano, who married a local beauty and is forced to come to Ossola once a year. Italians have a saying: “Mountain people are a weird breed.” But why? Good question.
In order to understand how it came to be, we need to tak a big leap back to the 1600s, when the “untraditional” festivity started. Ossola has always been a land of farmers and shepherds — I mean, what else could residents do high in the mountains to secure a source of income? Certainly not become skiing teachers or rock-climbing instructors. The biggest rush of adrenaline they could aspire to was chasing cattle and sheep across hills.
So the men would leave their beloved wives and children and set out on so-called paths of transhumance, leading the herds from low to high pastures. Or maybe it’s the other way around, from high to low. I’m not sure, and it makes no difference, really.
The fact is that they stayed away for months and months. It was sort of like Italy’s version of Brokeback Mountain (leaving out the homosexual love affair, though I’m not saying that didn’t happen). The snow and ice made it impossible for the men to join their families in December to celebrate the most Christian and sacred holiday of all. So sacred that they were forced to give it a makeover.
You’ll bump into living crèches where actors are sweating just to keep still.
The shepherds had to wait for the warm season to return home, when daisies were in full bloom, streams flowed and the trails were safe. Thus, the best time was summer: These desperate husbands and fathers could finally leave the pastures for their annual reunion with loved ones and get the only chance they had to party, exchange gifts, stuff themselves with special dumplings made with lavender and wish everyone “Buon Natale!”
A bit late … but better late than never.
Getting back to the present: If you’re a lover of high peaks rather than sunbathing and ever do pop up around here at this time of the year, don’t freak out if you see a procession of priests and nuns wearing sunglasses to shield their eyes from the blinding sun. Elders dressed up as Santa Claus carry fake Christmas trees and lights. You’ll bump into living crèches where actors are sweating just to keep still. Women clad in traditional clothes wear small pine trees and alpine stars on their heads, happily singing Christmas carols.
As a famous Italian proverb goes, “Each country you visit has its own mores.”
Yeah … but within the same country? That’s nuts!