As a special holiday treat for you, below is an excerpt from my new book,
“Because I’m Small Now and You Love Me” now available for preorders in the US and to be released world-wide on Valentine’s Day from Sakura Publishing!
“A CHRISTMAS WITCH FOR YOU OR SANTA CLAUS ISN’T THE ONLY ONE COMIN’ TO TOWN”
In the United States, of course, he’s known as Santa Claus. When we lived in France, Lulu called him Père Noël, and now here in Italy, he is adorably known as Babbo Natale. I say “adorably” because the word “babbo” is a very special Tuscan contribution that doesn’t translate simply as “father.” It has a more endearing and intimate meaning; like “daddy.” Therefore, the Italian holiday gift-giver isn’t “Father Christmas,” he’s “Daddy Christmas.”
“He’s extremely chubby,” Lulu said one December day. And it was true. As Arezzo shopkeepers started putting up their holiday decorations around the Corso Italia and other roads within the town’s medieval historic center, all the red-costumed, white-bearded Babbos’ protruded paunchy tummies were just like the image of our American jolly old elf made famous by Clement Moore, Thomas Nast and the Coca Cola company. We were standing outside of the Rustica Bottega Toscana watching a large animated Santa Claus, er, Babbo Natale, play the saxaphone.
“He must eat a lot of pasta,” Lulu observed. “And gelato.” I had been working on Lulu to try to get her to eat more “healthy foods” and I admit I had mentioned that a daily diet of ice cream or spaghetti with butter and parmesan would not help her grow fit and strong, but could make her become soft and “chubby.” I didn’t want to give her a complex, but I did want to stress “you are what you eat.” With her observation about the apparent poor eating habits of this robotic Santa, it appeared she’d received the message.
“Mama, is it true,” Lulu began. “That if you are too chubby, your heart will get squeezed and you will get dead?”
Okay, I also admit that I may have talked about cholesterol clogged-arteries and how excess body fat can lead to heart attacks, but I promise I wasn’t trying to scare my four-year old into eating vegetables. Well, maybe a little. And now here she was worried about old Saint Nick.
“Well, yes, Lulu,” I replied, not sure where I was going to go with this. I mean, I had never said that being overweight made someone a bad person, just that it was unhealthy. But, how do I balance the conflicting concepts that an obese old man – who obviously has not been making good eating choices – was still wise and wonderful enough to deliver toys to all the good little girls and boys of the world? “It’s true that it can be dangerous for your heart if you are too chubby (we don’t say the word “fat” in our house), and so I think Santa, er Babbo Natale is probably on a diet.”
“That’s good, Mama,” Lulu looked visibly relieved. “I don’t want Babbo Natale to die.” I knew it. She’s afraid the old man might keel over before he can fly around the world and bring her her loot.
“He’s not going to die, Lulu,” I said. “Santa Claus, er sheesh, Babbo Natale, whatever his name is, is going to live for a long, long time. I don’t think he’ll ever die.”
“He will if he keeps eating everything bad for his body,” Lulu said.
That night Scotty helped Lulu write Babbo Natale a letter. Lulu dictated and Scotty wrote. First, she requested that Babbo bring her a snake, and then she asked, “Are you eating anything healthy to help you get skinny?”
Fortunately, later that month, when Babbo Natale visited Lulu and her classmates at Bianca Maria Bianchini preschool, he gave each little child a wooden toothbrush and toothpaste holder with a tiny egg-timer fastened to the front. It was designed to help the child brush longer, so for me, that was a clear sign of promoting good health. I mentioned it to Lulu.
“See, Babbo Natale wants you to have clean teeth. That’s a healthy thing!”
“He was still chubby,” Lulu said.
We looked forward to another personal Babbo Natale sighting that week as Scotty, Lulu and I made our way to Arezzo’s public library. The sezione ragazzi, or children’s section, had been advertising that Babbo was going to make an appearance that evening and read a story to the kids. The library is in a 500 year old former government palace festooned with carved coats of arms from the past centuries of ruling families on its stone exterior. It is a magnificent building and while I doubted they would feature a sleek and svelte Santa, I imagined a visit there would be especially traditional and memorable.
Well, it was definitely memorable. For the moment Babbo Natale stepped through the door, it was plainly obvious to both Scotty and me that this petite person wearing a baggy red suit and white beard was no babbo, but was instead a mamma. We raised our eyebrows and stifled laughs. The kids were already seated in a semi-circle around a large empty chair that “Babbo” proceeded to daintily perch upon. He/she asked the children what they wanted for Natale, read them a story in a high-pitched voice and then passed out caramelle or candies. I hoped maybe Lulu hadn’t noticed.
“Looks like Babbo Natale has lost some weight (and height),” I said to her afterward holding her in my arms.
Lulu leaned into my ear and whispered, “He was a girl, Mama.” She had noticed.
Finally, the morning of Lulu’s first Italian Christmas arrived and she awoke to discover that the real chubby male Babbo Natale had somehow managed to survive another season – at least long enough to deliver Lulu her loot. Babbo left her the pink scooter she had been clamoring for – after she thankfully tired of the snake idea. Lulu also got a pink children’s digital camera with more bells and whistles than our grown-up one thanks to my mom and my stepdad, Jerry. Scotty’s parents, my sister, and our cousins rounded out the rest of her presents in assorted books and toys. It was a real holiday haul.
But it wasn’t over. Babbo Natale is a relative new-comer to Italy’s wintertime gift-giving tradition. Long before they adapted and renamed our American Santa Claus, Italians had La Befana to deliver sweets and presents to children in their stockings.
La Befana is an old woman who rides around on a broomstick and leaves goodies for the kiddies on the eve of Epiphany in January. But, in spite of what you might think, our Italian friends point out that she is not a witch. She just needs the broom to fly on and then apparently uses it to sweep the floors of everyone’s home before she leaves. She is always depicted smiling and wearing a patched soot-speckled dress, because she comes down so many chimneys. Instead of leaving cookies and milk for her like Santa Claus, Italians set out a glass of red wine. So, while she may not be a witch, she is tidy and likes a little vino; definitely my kind of woman.
Oh, and she is also usually portrayed as thin. I mean she only has a broomstick to ride, not a giant sleigh pulled by reindeer, so it makes sense. I hadn’t made any big deal about that particular distinction when right around this time, Lulu and I met La Befana in person. We were at the Magnifico shopping center when a woman wearing wire-rimmed spectacles and dressed in a black shawl and peasant-type dress came by to give Lulu a treat. She appeared not to be some randomly shabby stranger, but to have been sponsored by the shopping center. Trailed by kids, she was holding a broom in one hand and a large canvas sack of treats in the other. She was also beautiful and lithe and athletically on roller skates.
Lulu, who was only just learning about La Befana, looked up at her in awe. The not-quite-a-witch was lovely and lean and kind. A holiday heavyweight she could happily believe in. The woman smiled down at Lulu and patted her head. She said something in Italian that I didn’t catch and reached into her bag.
She gave Lulu an orange.
Lulu looked back up at La Befana and quietly said, “Grazie.” Then she looked over at me and said in English, “I like Santa Claus better.”
Chubbiness and all.