There are three religious public holidays in Italy that do not exist in Protestant countries such as the UK. One is Epiphany on 6th January, another is the Feast of the Assumption on 15th August, and the third is the feast day of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception on 8th December. Officially, the Immaculate Conception is one of Catholicism’s four Marian dogmas (ie it was divinely revealed) and states that Mary was born free of original sin by virtue of her role as the Mother of God. Semi-officially, however, her feast day is also the day in Italy that signals the start of Christmas and so it is the day on which people traditionally dig out their Santa hats, untangle their fairy lights and put up their Christmas trees. And in a year when celebrations and festivities have been so very thin on the ground, the date seemed to have taken on an air of dogged hopefulness, with people defiantly filling their trolleys with extra-sparkly baubles, angels and stars, extra-abundant wreaths and garlands and supersize trees: we will enjoy some Christmas cheer somehow, however few people we can share it with, whatever the restrictions still in place.
For here in Italy, the second wave of Covid-19 infections has only just started to recede following the introduction in November of a national system of different coloured zones, each with its own set of restrictions, designed to slow, if not halt, the spread of the virus. Throughout the year, Le Marche has remained ‘mid-table’, with lower infection and fatality rates than many regions. And so it was with the second wave, meaning that we started off in the yellow zone, with few additional restrictions beyond those such as the night-time curfew and the closure of all entertainment and leisure facilities that are in place nationally. Within barely a fortnight, however, Le Marche was moved (up? down?) into the orange zone because, among other things, pressure the region’s intensive care capacity was considered to have reached a critical level. We had barely thirty-six hours’ grace before movement from one comune to another (except for proven work, study, health or other needs) was outlawed, the self-declaration document and corresponding checks were re-introduced, and all bars, restaurants and cafés were completely closed. So Mr Blue-Shirt and I were effectively back to little more than a single trip out per week to go to the supermarket – although I have to confess that we did always go the long way round just to see a bit more of the outside world and did also usually visit a couple of additional shops to make purchases of admittedly questionable necessity.
But with all the metrics beginning to go in the right direction, we were hopeful that the emergency decree due at the end of November would return us to the yellow zone. Quite apart from allowing us a degree of day-to-day normality once more, it would also be the only way we would be able to buy a tree, never mind do any Christmas shopping, for confined to our comune, we have access only to a small supermarket, a couple of bakers, a greengrocer and a pharmacy; to find any bigger shops we need to travel to Ancona, Civitanova Marche or Macerata. The regional press was full of predictions that we would indeed return to yellow, local social media pages were just as confident, and Simeone, the owner of the café in the village even started to wash down its outdoor tables in readiness for re-opening. But in the end, despite the promising numbers, the long-anticipated decree made no mention of zone changes from red to orange, nor from orange to yellow. No gesture of seasonal goodwill, no Christmas lights at the end of the tunnel. Just a complex set of further restrictions and regulations applicable to yellow as well as orange and red zones, and to cover the entire Christmas period. No movement at all from one region to another between 21st December and 6th January, no movement at all from one comune to another on Christmas Day, Boxing Day or New Year’s Day, no relaxation of the 10pm curfew – not even to allow for Midnight Mass or seeing in the New Year – but in fact an extension from 5am to 7am. Plus a long list of do’s and don’ts – but mainly don’ts – covering family get-togethers, visits to friends, overseas travel and skiing trips. It was looking as if we were set not for a white Christmas, but for an orange one. And a fairly deep shade of orange at that.
Exactly a week later, however, all those locally whose confident predictions had seemingly turned to dust (orange dust) were finally vindicated. After several days’ heated haggling between central government and the regions, our regional president finally succeeded in securing zona gialla (yellow zone) status for Le Marche – but which he felt obliged to accompany with impassioned exhortations to be sensible, to remain vigilant, and …..well, not to put too fine a point on it, not to ‘kick the arse out of it’. The upshot of which is that we can now enjoy a coffee in the village (even though we may have to drink it outside), we can go out for Christmas drinks or even a meal (providing they are at lunchtime), we can go Christmas shopping (providing we avoid shopping centres at weekends), and since Umbria is among the handful of other regions that have also turned from orange back to yellow, we can even nip over to Spello if we want (up to 21st December, at least). Indeed, some are suggesting that it is the government’s hope (if not actual intention) that every region, even those currently in the red zone, will be in the yellow zone by mid-December.
And so it was that Mr Blue-Shirt and I were among those down in Civitanova Marche defiantly filling their trolleys with extra-sparkly baubles, angels and stars, extra-abundant wreaths and garlands and supersize trees, sharing their hopeful resolve to enjoy some Christmas cheer , and like everyone else, determined to focus on what we could do rather than what we couldn’t. We even managed to do it in time for the feast of the Immaculate Conception as tradition dictates.