Never mind. The fountain in the midst of Piazza Dante is joyfully sprinkling jets of water that glitter in the sun, hours before a spell of bad weather, possibly snow, hits the town. The square itself is even more cheerful, now hosting one of the Christmas street markets that have become so popular everywhere.
The South Tyrol markets were the first to turn into a tourist attraction when coaches started to ply the motorway to Bozen and Meran over December weekends. The prospect of visiting there has never particularly appealed to me because I imagine the busloads of day trippers must build into a packed crowd and I give commonplace a wide berth.
The whole idea of Christmas markets smacks a little of a commercial fair, at least in Bergamo where this tradition has not been extant for long. It is however true that when I did my military service in Brixen (South Tyrol), lovely stalls were set up on the cathedral square and they contributed so well to the festive atmosphere. Even here they give the winter holidays a cheerful tangible side.
These markets have been replicated out of their land of origin to appear in other Italian towns. The stalls sell trinkets, Christmas decorations and what not that can be just as useless as presents should be. As a matter of fact, there must be a considerable turnover around them, what with councils leasing the spaces, organisers selling the booths, vendors selling their goods. In Bergamo only, there are two going on simultaneously, but people will always buy at street markets, however ridiculous the prices may be.
Come to think about it, the iconography is somewhat artificial, being generally inspired to the stereotyped images that are now indissolubly linked to Christmas: a bearded old man with a red coat, reindeer, etc. We people of the south have nothing to do with these icons, but the “winter festival” par excellence, so disguised, sells so well that everything goes, even in Australia, where Christmas falls in the summer.
I have seen similar markets in southern France and Andalusia and of course Naples, mostly concerned with nativity statuettes. In spite of today’s secularised Europe, never before have we been so fond of Christmas. After all, didn’t it start in pagan times as the festival of winter solstice with an astronomical meaning to it? Only at a later stage was it was taken over by nascent Christianity as one of its pivotal festivals.
I am rather against the frenzy of Christmas shopping. I try to give and receive as few gifts as I can, and make an effort for them to be meaningful giving. There are people who nag about Christmas having turned into a commercial kermesse, and they have a point. I too was confronted with the absurdity of a commercial Christmas when I saw Santas and fir-tree garlands in… Phnom Penh (Cambodia).
However, holidays are a time of the year when something special is performed that sets them apart from the rest of the days. Christmas markets may be a relative novelty in my town, but I welcome them, as well as their joyful tunes and colours. When the holidays are over, I feel a sense of void when the square they occupied stays scattered with litter for a few hours and then everything is swept clean to return the same old place again.