Although I had been visiting Padua for years, my first Christmas here wasn't until 1989. It was magical; everything seemed so new and different.
Stefano and I had been been married for a year and had a month-old son. When we arrived at my in-laws' house, there was no Christmas tree in the living room. The decorations were understated—no colored lights or tinsel. There was a crèche in the dining room, peasants and animals making their way to an empty manger. Mistletoe dangled in the hallway and Christmas cards hung from red ribbons.
Stefano's elder brother, with his wife and two daughters, came to celebrate on the afternoon of December 24. The children went out with their grandfather to have a treat and ride the carousel in the center of town. When they returned, their cheeks were red and their eyes full of excitement. Stefano's mother, who had been helping to prepare the dinner, rang a small bell and the girls scurried to the dining room. The door was opened and inside stood a tree decorated with flickering candles, glass balls, and handmade birds that looked as if they had flown in from the forest. Presents lay underneath.
The table was set with white linen, china, more candles, and garlands of pine branches. In the crèche, Gesù bambino was now lying on his bed of hay. After prayers and song, the entire family—including Stefano's younger brother, sister, and uncle—sat down to eat a simple, elegant fish dinner.
Christmas Eve has traditionally been a time of fasting. My mother-in-law, from the city of Turin, in Piedmont, recalls that when she was growing up food was banned until midnight. So after marrying Stefano's father and moving to Padua, she was shocked to see his family eat on Christmas Eve. People from the Veneto, who have always lived a more secular life, maintain that they're fasting as long as they're not having meat.
Gifts were opened after dinner. Then we piled into cars and drove to mass at the Benedictine abbey of Praglia, south of Padua.
LIFE HAS CHANGED DURING THE PAST decade. My father-in-law is no longer with us. Stefano's younger brother and sister are each married. There are six new nieces and nephews. With more to do, everyone runs on different schedules.
Last year was the millennium, and the 2000 Jubilee celebrations in Rome were in full swing. Churches throughout the country were undergoing renovation, and the scaffolding that hid their beauty dampened the holiday spirit a bit.
We went to midnight mass at the Basilica di Sant'Antonio. I was amazed at how many people filled the massive church. We worked our way to the only space we could find, in the Cappella del Santo near Saint Anthony's tomb. Worshipers squeezed past, anxious to press their palms against his sarcophagus, which was covered with ex-votos, photos, and candles. Across from us, on the other side of the basilica, we could see the choir above the de' Menabuoi frescoes in the Cappella del Beato Luca Belludi. "Ave Maria" filled the air. My love for Christmas in Padua, momentarily checked by the renovations and the complications of family life, was instantly rekindled.
DURING ONE OF OUR LAST NIGHTS IN Padua, we dined with friends at Osteria Speroni, a favorite restaurant. Our guests, also from New York, noted that Padua is often overlooked because it is in the shadow of Venice. "People come for a few hours to see the Scrovegni Chapel or to visit the university, but they don't stay long enough to see that it's the living, breathing part of Venice," one of them observed. "They miss the palaces, the cobblestoned streets, the arched walkways." They miss Padua's rhythm and its magic, never more evident than at Christmas.