One of the reasons we love Italy, is because of its wonderful traditions. It’s still (barely) one of the last refuges where Christmas is still less commercialized (that is, if you’re like me, and don’t set foot in shopping malls). The manger scene exhibits, the churches, the panettone. It was actually Saint Francis himself who started up the whole idea of manger scenes in the 1200s, recreating one at Greppo (which, incidently, just burned down – the manger, not the town).
But, in my opinion, Christmas for many, actually has far far earlier roots. Skipping over poor old Mithra, the sun god who was worshipped throughout the entire Roman empire, and whose birth was (adjusting for calendar switches) on December 25th, many Italians carry on an age-old tradition which goes back even further: to the days of animal sacrifice (and I’m not talking about the dinner table).
Sure, they’ve updated a bit from the days of bringing one’s goats & sheep in for the kill. These days, the sacrifice comes in the form of a fluffy little kitten or puppy, all joy and a nice red ribbon. According to reports, it is the most desired gift each season. And with those wily Koreans coming out just in time with kitties who glow green & red in the dark, well, I can just see the demand in a few years’ time. They’d make perfect nightlights, except mamma won’t allow the darling ‘pets’ in the bedroom.
But, these animals won't be brought to a marble altar for slaughter at the hands of the High Priest. No, here they're laid before an evergreen tree, a shiny collar round their throat. They're first fattened up, even trained, and often loved. After 8 months, they'll be unceremoniously killed at the bumper of a brand new Audi. And sometimes, the sacrifice won’t even wait for summer. Today I ran into a bum; beer in one hand, tiny puppy and a half-opened can of food in the other. He said an elderly woman had abandoned the pup there this morning. He named the frisky thing Laica.
Fortunately, some very sensible people in Rome’s animal rights dept have started an ad campaign this year, attempting to sensitize people to the responsibilities of giving a pet this Christmas. The ads end with a beautiful Christmassy cheer: We hope that in 2008 this ad will no longer be necessary. Take a look at their site. Unfortunately, I’ve yet to see the ads at Veterinarian offices and pet food stores.
But in my book, they still get an A for Effort. After all, long-held traditions are a hard thing to break.