We lived in a small village outside of Verona, Italy for three years. While there, we participated in many local celebrations. A favorite was the Feast of Santa Lucia, which heralded the beginning of the Christmas celebrations. Each year the children at the Asilo put on a play depicting the birth of Christ. After the presentation, Santa Lucia arrived to pass out gifts to the kids. One year our son was in the production. He wore a period costume, including a sheep-lined vest, and walked with a girl who held tight to his hand. I’ve always thought she considered it her job to make sure he hit his mark for his speaking part. (His Italian was always better than mine.)

Verona has a defining symbol for the season. A white steel shooting star whose comet tail rises out of the Arena Amphitheater in Piazza Bra, pointing the way to the Nativity display. In Piazza Bra there are four evenings of fairy tales and games near the antique merry-go-round. On the 13thof the month, the children receive gifts.

Santa Lucia was a young Christian martyr who died during the Diocletian Persecution. “Santa Lucia is coming” is a tradition in Verona where a young woman in white rides a donkey into the square to hand out gifts to the children. According to legend, 13th century Verona had a terrible epidemic. The Veronese prayed to Santa Lucia and marched barefooted to S. Agnese Church to save their children. The children were spared, and every year they hold a party in her honor. As with most festivals today, the party is less spiritual march and more craft fair including nearly 250 stands of street vendors from all over Italy, selling their wares. It is a great place to pick up candy, toys, and gifts.

In addition to the presents, Verona families serve a mandorlato, a variation of the torrone. The hard shell made of honey, sugar and egg whites melts in the mouth, leaving the roasted almonds inside for the crunch. Another Italian treat is hot chocolate. Yes, we have it in the States, but not the way the Italians make it. Italian hot chocolate is, for lack of a better example, hot chocolate pudding. The kids loved it, and so did I.

Walking around downtown Verona is a treat any time of the year, but Christmas, with the lights and festivities, will always hold a special place in my heart.