A few summers ago, I backpacked through Italy with my dear friend Mariellyn. The adventure could fill a book of its own (maybe it will someday) because several events happened that would make the shenanigans in Maid of Murder look like child’s play. To this day, I’m still convinced Rome is the most difficult city to navigate. Please bear in mind I say this having gotten horribly lost in Budapest, Hungary by myself. (Perhaps a tale for another blog.)
Christmastime always reminds me of the Italy trip and the hot July day Mariellyn and I were in Vatican City. When I say hot, I mean hot as in one hundred plus degrees Fahrenheit. I don’t know the temperature on that day for sure because by that point in the trip my little thermometer, which hung from a carbineer on my backpack, had self destructed.
Despite the heat after visiting St. Peter’s Basilica, we joined the long line winding through the city streets to see the Sistine Chapel. The line was compromised of Northern European, Japanese, and American tourists. All the Italians and other Mediterranean folks knew better than to stand in the hot Italian sun in the middle of July. The ones who could afford it were lying on a beach on a Mediterranean island. The ones who could not were smart enough to find a patch of shade.
Because the line was so long (four hours plus), Mariellyn and I took turns standing in it. The first chance I had to leave the line I set off to do some shopping. I had a particular mission. My brother asked for a pewter model of Saint Peter’s Basilica. That’s all he wanted from Italy. Please, don’t ask me why. We are not Catholic, so I have no good explanation. But I love buying people presents, so I was determined to fulfill his request. After a few minutes in Vatican City, I was certain I could find a model of Saint Peter’s made out of just about anything.
I found the pewter Basilica in a little hole-in-the-wall shop that was easily overlooked. It caught my eye because it had pewter basilicas displayed in its grimy window. I made a beeline for the store and quickly selected the smallest one I could find as I was going to have to carry it on my back for the next five days. After my selection, I stepped further into the shop, and that’s when I saw it: Fontanini heaven.
Through multiple trips to Frankenmuth, Michigan, my parents put together a Fontanini Nativity. Fontanini figurines are hand painted resin figures made in Italy. As a child, the Nativity was the Christmas decoration I most looked forward to each year because it wasn’t fragile. It wasn’t something I could break, so I was allowed to put it up. Every time I unpacked it, it was with a quiet reverence. So even though I was in Italy, home of Fontanini, I was shocked to find it in that little Vatican City shop. What’s more, I was shocked by how many figurines there were. Every character that could have been in Bethlehem on the first Christmas (wisemen, shepherds, angels, Roman soldiers, innkeepers, elephants, camels, horses) were present; you name it, it was there.
I knew the figurines were the perfect gifts for my parents. I selected a shepherdess, three cats, and a goat. I don’t know how much they cost. I didn’t even look at the price tags; I just happily handed over my credit card to the hook-nosed man at the counter. It didn’t matter what they cost because they were the perfect gifts.
Days later, I was home and the first thing I did was rummage through my luggage for the Fontaninis. When my father unwrapped the shepherdess, he cried because he was so touched by the gift.
I wonder if God, felt a little like I did when he sent his gift Jesus to Earth. He didn’t care what it cost Him. He knew it was the perfect gift and would make those who received it cry with thanksgiving. I suppose that’s why the commercial side of Christmas doesn’t bother me as much as it does other Christians. I love the hunt for the perfect gift. I love the look on my family and friends’ faces when I’ve given them something they like. If you have the means to do it, gift giving is nothing to be ashamed of; God certainly wasn’t.
So this Christmas, the Fontanini Nativity came out again. The cats, goat, and shepherdess are there among Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, wisemen, and the baby Jesus my parents collected. There’s a gentle continuity about the Nativity, especially since this is the first Christmas without my father here. But he’s appreciating a much better gift, one freely given and gratefully received.