This is not my first Christmas away from home, and probably not my last. I’m in my second year living in the Eternal City studying theology at the Gregorian University, so last year I was in Europe as well. Don’t get me wrong; I love being here, but the fact is a big part of me would jump at the chance of hopping on American Airlines flight 110 and crossing the Atlantic back to Texas to be with my family for the holidays.
But if you can’t be at home, there is probably no better place on the planet to celebrate Christmas than in the city of Rome. The presepe, the Nativity scene, is probably the biggest tradition in the city with whole portions of churches and basilicas devoted to mini-versions of the entire town of Bethlehem. A Christmas carnival fills Piazza Navona where you can buy the various pieces of the Nativity scene. There are the familiar figurines: humble shepherds, decked-out wise men, and blue-eyed, blonde haired baby Jesuses. Abounding in different binds are also the non-canonical but still traditional pieces for sale: la nonna carrying a ham, cousin Luigi eating a bowl of pasta, a little man trying to open a bottle of wine; it goes on and on.
At the Gregorian University, we also have our traditions for Christmas time. Now, you first have to understand that in Rome each country sets up a residence hall, called a college, for their diocesan seminarians to live at while they attend school at one the major theology faculties: the Angelicum (run by the Dominicans), Santa Croce (run by Opus Dei) and the Gregorian (run
by the Jesuits); various religious orders, like the Jesuits, have such residence colleges as well. I live at the International College of the Gesù with Jesuit scholastics from around the world. In the last few weeks, during the breaks, a different college puts on a small performance of their national Christmas carols. Normally during the breaks, students rush off to the bar to grab a coffee to wake up from the last lecture and prepare for the next. These days, young seminarians, holy sisters, and theologians-to-be gather in the atrium of the school to be serenaded by their classmates.
Early last week, we were treated by the Korean community who performed various carols with modest choreography. However, the last number changed, and we were all greatly surprised when the wholesome melodies evolved into Gangnam Style. You haven’t really ever celebrated Christmas until you’ve seen a Korean nun break out Gangnam style.
Later in the week, the Mexican College hung a multicolored, star-shaped piñata in the atrium, and, true-to-form, those training to be the future leaders of the Church crawled across the marble grasping for small pieces of hard candy. For the next two weeks we were prepared for Christmas by listening to carols in German, Congolese, English, Italian and many others I’m not sure of.
The singing of Christmas carols at school is really a beautiful tradition. Since most of my classmates are like me and won’t be returning home for Christmas, singing carols gives every one a chance to not only show off but to share a little bit of home.