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Canada’s nuncio recalls childhood Christmases in Italy

By Deborah Gyapong

Canadian Catholic News


OTTAWA (CCN) — When Canada’s papal nuncio, Archbishop Luigi Bonazzi, was five years old, he remembers his Aunt Rosa giving him some “little statues to make the crib” or nativity scene.

“For us Christmas means the Christmas crib,” he said. In the 1950s, people did not have Christmas trees. Instead, “there was a contest within the village of who was making the better crib.”

“But of course, in order to make the better crib, you have to have numbers of good statues,” he said.

The figures were made of clay. His father, a carpenter, built a little stable. In order to prepare the nativity scene, they would go to the nearby mountains to collect moss to make a luminous, fresh, green carpet for the crèche that was about a metre and a half wide and half a meter deep.

Every year, his parents gave the children one or two statues among the Christmas gifts.

“When I was eight or nine there was already a good number of statues, which we used to dispose in a different way every year,” he said. His mother left the children to “create every year our little fantasy.”

There was no Santa Claus delivering gifts. Instead the Baby Jesus, Gesù Bambino, came on Christmas Eve. Until he was eight or nine, the nuncio believed Baby Jesus was delivering the gifts they received.

The archbishop grew up in Gandino, a town of about 5,000 in the province of Bergamo, in the foothills of the Alps. The houses were built in the 15th century, grouped around a minor basilica, Santa Maria of Gandino. His family lived a 10-minute walk from the church, five minutes if he ran.

The basilica was at the top of a sloping piazza about 50 metres deep that would get covered with snow in the winter. The boys used to run and then hurl themselves across the icy slope, sliding on the soles of their shoes.

Not only did everyone have a nativity scene in their homes, the town had three or four large cribs on display. There was one in the hospital that transformed the big chapel “into a beautiful monument” with statues over a metre high.

Though he was never an altar boy, he enjoyed attending mass on Christmas Eve with his family. Another Christmas tradition was La Pastorèla, composed of a group of older people who would gather in the squares with guitars, mandolins, violins and other instruments to play Christmas music.

Traditional Christmas foods included panettone, a light cake with candied fruit, and torrone, a nougat candy laced with nuts. Torrone would be among the gifts of the Baby Jesus, the archbishop said.

After returning from mass, because it was cold out, they would drink vino cotto, or vin brulé, a mulled wine with spices which was set aflame for a moment. They would blow it the flame and drink.

Bonazzi spent the first 14 years of his life in Gandino, until he went into the seminary. Later, as a priest in the diplomatic corps, he does not recall feeling homesick.

“We have a saying, Natale con i tuoi, Pasqua con chi vuoi” (Christmas with your relatives or with yours, Easter with whomever you choose or those you like).

“For me, ‘yours’ was the nunciatura where I was,” he said. The people at the nunciature were his family to rejoice with at the family feast of Christmas, “because it is the feast where the Lord is visiting the human family and assuring us of his friendship, of his esteem, of his alliance.”

“Since I am a nuncio also, I take this Christmas as an occasion to have a special moment of friendship, of family life with all the members of the nunciature,” he said. Not only does he show appreciation for the work they do, but for them as persons, for their presence, their character and their love.

This family celebration in nunciatures over Christmas has happened wherever he has been posted, whether Haiti, Cuba, or Lithuania. He is not sure what will be served here in Canada at their Christmas banquet in Ottawa, but he suspects it will be turkey. “This family reality goes across the countries.”

When he was in Cuba, every Christmas the nunciature would receive a huge basket weighing 70 or 80 pounds. In it would be an “immense” turkey of about 40 pounds, already with a thermometer sticking in it. This basket from the Castro family would also contain some of Cuba’s best rum and tropical fruits.

Each year, the nuncio receives an autographed letter from the pope, decorated with that pope’s coat of arms. The nuncio reads the letter together with his staff. “This is also a family moment, an important moment to share together.”

Each Christmas, Bonazzi tries to make his correspondence to the bishops, to the heads of religious congregations and to his fellow ambassadors as personal as possible.

“I consider important that if I send a Christmas card, it is not a routine,” he said.

Whether in the nunciature or back home in Gandino during the 1950s, Christmas is a far cry from the consumer-driven frenzy of North America.

“The consumer society tries to steal Christmas in order to transform Christmas into a good to sell,” he said. “This is really the opposite of what is Christmas. Christmas is not something to buy, it is something to receive. Christmas is a gift.”

“It is this incredible thing, of a God deciding to visit his people, to come down from heaven,” he said. “It is like God turns to me and says, I really wish to see how they are, what they do, what do they think, and he comes and he becomes one of us, in order to know us, not only from his wisdom, but by taking my same share. He knows how I suffer, the effort I have to make to reach a goal, and he comes to offer me his infinite confidence, to tell me that I am important for him, to offer me to have a part in his reality, in his heritage.”

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