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A Family Christmas in Padua

It is noon when we walk into the Piazza delle Erbe, the market busy with vendors selling fruits, nuts, and vegetables. My mother-in-law goes off to buy panettone, a Christmas cake, at the Pasticceria Graziati, one of the oldest bakeries in Padua. Stefano, my husband, heads to the corner bar for an aperitif of Prosecco and a bite to eat. I follow him. The air is crisp and people seem to keep in constant movement to ward off the cold. We stand outside with our Prosecco in one hand, panino con la porchetta in the other. A light fog lingers over our heads. The sounds of people laughing and bargaining, heels on cobblestones, rusty bicycle wheels, crates being loaded mix into one ambient noise.

Our children run to the candy stalls that are set up at Christmas, and come back begging for a few thousand lire to buy the sweets of their choosing. We tell them they have to wait for the Befana, a witch who visits on the eve of January 6, filling their stockings with candies if they've been good and coal if they've been bad. There is a feeling of anticipation in the air.

When my mother-in-law returns, we go to buy prosciutto in the market that runs beneath the nearby Palazzo della Ragione. We weave between scores of stalls in two massive halls where merchants have been selling salami, cheese, poultry, meat, and fish since the Middle Ages.

By now it is almost one o'clock. People are beginning to disappear, the vendors packing up, shopkeepers beginning to close their doors. "Arrivederci, signora" can be heard from every direction. "Ciao, ci vediamo," as friends part. A strange and beautiful silence falls on the town, as though it were early morning again.

TWO DAYS BEFORE CHRISTMAS. WE ARE SPENDING THE holiday with Stefano's family in Padua, a city that is easily missed by tourists because of its proximity to Venice, and because the urban sprawl and reconstruction that followed its heavy bombing in World War II left it, at first glance, not entirely appealing. It is still, however, one of the most ancient and culturally rich cities of Italy.

Most of Padua's center remains intact, preserving its intellectual and artistic heritage. Dante, Petrarch, Giotto, Donatello, Mantegna, and Galileo all worked here. Saint Anthony preached in Padua until his death in 1231, and pilgrims have come to touch his tomb ever since.

Nicknamed La Dotta—the Learned—Padua is home to the brain trust of the Veneto; the University of Padua is one of Europe's oldest and most celebrated institutions of higher learning. And it was Padua's porticoed streets that provided the setting for Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew.

OUR SCHEDULE IS INVARIABLY THE SAME—A TRIP EACH morning to the outdoor markets for fruits and vegetables, a quick detour to the pasticceria for bread, home for lunch, a rest until 4 p.m., and then back into the center of town to shop or sightsee. One would think that after 13 years we must have seen everything, as most of the city's monuments can be viewed in a couple of days. But we continually choose to revisit the past.

That is Padua's beauty. I always loved to stroll with Stefano's father as he pointed out the medieval buildings, Galileo's tower, and the area that used to be the Jewish ghetto. I never tire of living with the city's ghosts, walking the same streets and shopping in the same shops that have been there since the 13th century. Places where Petrarch may once have passed are now, in what seems an effortless transformation, chic design shops, galleries, and clothing boutiques.

Today we decide to see the Nativity scene at the Basilica of Sant'Antonio. The courtyard exhibit is decorated by a new team of artists each year. It is a miniature animated theater that reminds me of productions at Disneyland when I was small, the figures tiny replicas of ourselves. After pushing our way to the front, we see that this time they have created a village full of shops, restaurants, and artisans. It looks more like a medieval version of Padua than Bethlehem. As the background darkens, candlelight begins to flicker inside the rooms. Suddenly one star shines brighter than the others and transparent angels take flight. The landscape starts to move, and we see the manger and the bed of hay. On a faraway mountain, three kings approach on camels. The only thing missing is the baby Jesus.

In Italy, Gesù bambino arrives after midnight on Christmas Eve. He's the one who gives gifts, rather than family members or a fat guy in a funny red suit. There are no elves in the North Pole; no stockings hung by the fire. Instead, San Nicolò brings a gift for all children on December 6, reminding them to obey their parents and do well in school.

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