12/25/2013 05:03 pm ET Updated Feb 24, 2014

Florence Is Twinkling

'The Holidays' (as I, trying to be a politically correct New Englander, always call this time of year) are in full swing in Florence, where they celebrate Christmas unabashedly!!!

Thanksgiving, of course, was terrific for me, mostly because of my family (son David and daughter-in-law Meredith)'s visit. And now I am getting ready to meet son Alex and daughter-in-law June in Rome for a couple of days and then we will come back to Florence for food, fun and friends.

Florence, and indeed, each town and city around here, really dresses up at Christmas time. Florence decorates its street with cascades of twinkling white lights, and each street has a different kind of twinkling white lights, making a spectacular scene once darkness falls. I have heard differing stories (oh, Italy!), but it is possible that the sets of twinkling lights rotate year by year, so that each street has a different look each year.

I did go to the parade and tree-lighting at the Duomo piazza a few days ago, and, although the piazza was really crowded with spectators, including many, many gorgeous children (dressed with incredible style, as they tend to I saw a sleeping baby dressed in lovely glittery leg-warmers!), the experience was terrific. First, the chorus of Santa Clauses sang carols from the Duomo steps, then the sound of drums reached my ears, bringing the parade of men (no women) dressed in Renaissance costume (complete with red shoes, red pants and red hats), carrying Florentine flags or drums. They stopped and performed their flag-tossing routine (wonderful!) and then moved on. The highlight of the short ceremony was, however, the lighting of the huge Christmas tree, which, by day, proudly wears huge Gigli Rossi (the red Florentine flower that is its symbol -- 'florence' means 'flower', of course, and the Romans called the city 'Florentia'). Each night now the tree magically sparkles with about a gazillion white lights, and is just gorgeous in its simplicity and elegance. The piazza is now crowded daily with shoppers and revellers (most piazzas are always full of step or bench sitters enjoying the view and the holiday cheer), so it feels pretty touristy again, but it also feels festive.

And the shop buildings and windows are amazingly beautiful. Even the smallest shop (shoemaker, pharmacy, etc) has some decoration, but the 'fancy' stores have really created works of art. Fortunately, Florence continues to be a walking city.

And since most streets have few (only taxis, delivery vans, and other 'allowed' cars) vehicles, people walk in the streets, giving more room for more people to amble arm-in-arm or otherwise. Not everyone, of course, has time to amble, so often the hurrying use the street, nimbly hopping onto the sidewalk to avoid the group blocking the street, as necessary.

I have gone on day-trips to Pistoia and to Assisi recently, and each town there is decorated gorgeously. The piazzas all have some lights strung (all white -- never any color that I have seen) and all the shops have some manner of decoration, and the harmonious simplicity of the scene suggests, to me, a real elegance. I have not seen any houses or apartments that have been are gaudy or jarring in their decoration, and 'less does seem to be more' everywhere.

The shopping does go on, of course, even though the high-end stores (complete with gorgeous windows) don't seem to have many/any customers inside. Gift-swapping is part of the Italian Christmas, and friends give gifts to other friends as an expression of love and kindness; Italy is, after all, full of emotions!

In addition, the children have another holiday to anticipate. At the beginning of January, on Epiphany eve, Befana (a smiling witch on a broom who looks just like the 'kitchen witch' I had many years ago) delivers presents to Italian children. Befana carries some heathen goddess tradition and gives sweets and gifts to 'good' children and lumps of coal or wood to 'bad' ones. She even might sweep the floor before she leaves your house, as a way of sweeping away problems!

And the holiday festivities also include many, many concerts, street markets, exhibits and special events. On Friday I went to a concert of Contemporary Music in the gorgeous Library at the Uffizi; I didn't really love the music but was impressed with the place and the quality of the artistry everywhere. The 9 piece orchestra, including vocalist, played 20th century music, including show tunes in English or German and an incredible saxophone and piano duet. I think it was also interesting to note my slight discomfort at living in the 20th century (art-wise, at least) when I have been spending most of my time in Florence buried in the Renaissance.

I have also been lucky enough to attend an art opening at the gorgeous Palazzo Medici Riccardi a couple of weeks ago, and I have wandered through the famous German Christmas market in Piazza Santa Croce, where the specialty seems to be vin brule (hot wine with spices served in large cups to happy people) -- I had a really delicious doughnut filled with apple and enjoyed every sugary bite! On lots of smaller piazzas or inside various church halls other seasonal markets or benefits are happening each weekend, at the least. The Four Seasons here, located in a gorgeous huge palazzo surrounded by acres of beautiful garden (in the midst of an all-stone city!), held its annual benefit for the Hospedale degli Innocenti (the orphanage with a long and interesting history, with gorgeous della Robbia roundels of babies in swaddling cloths on its facade). On a gorgeous sunny day (like a fall day in Boston), the gardens at the Four Seasons were opened to the public and many vendors and farmers and chefs and vintners and crafters and offered samples and talked about their local products and pride. The Santa Claus chorus sang in one part of the garden and some students sang in another part of the garden. It was neat (and crowded).

Last night I went to Santa Croce for a Gregorian chant concert (free and not a mass, both of which are attractive attractions). The concerts all start at 9 pm or so (what?), so I find I have to re-tune my usual schedule to accommodate. The results have been great, though, and last night I heard beautiful music that I had not previously been introduced to or experienced. Emily explained that the music, all in Latin, mostly derives from the Roman Catholic liturgy of Advent and Christmas Eve. The chanters, 3 women and about 8 men (apparently, some were absent because of family or Christmas), sing a cappella (beautiful voices only) and without harmony. Into this very old and beautiful space (the former refrectory -- dining room -- of the monastery, with the frescoed Cenacolo -'Last Supper' by Gaddi, dating from 1340 or so -- on one wall reminding the monks of their place and purpose, even while eating, with beautiful old sacred music dating from perhaps the 9th or 10th century, the modern age did intrude and help. They projected the music for each piece on the screen, so it was great for me to see the score and to try to understand the singing and the words. It was an interesting juxtaposition of the ages, somehow, for me.