Reinventing Christmas in Italy

Jess and Simon Cowell serve God with CMS (the Church Missionary Society) in Bari, Italy, bearing witness to Jesus with university students and supporting their local church. 

Another December day in Bari begins. It is not freezing, but it is definitely cold. Soon we will hit seven years of living in Italy, so cold Decembers are not so novel now. Our youngest child, Sofia, is painting in the lounge room with our church friend, Stefania. Stefania babysits one morning a week, which is a great help, particularly for me so that I can get done what I need to do! They chat and giggle, Stefania speaking to Sofia in Italian, while Sofia responds emphatically in English.

Christmas in Italy

Simon and I meet to discuss the commitments and preparation for the final couple of weeks before the holidays. But are we talking about Christmas events and carols services? Not really! Italy remains a very Catholic country – a huge 74.5% of the population still responds that way when asked, though not long ago it was well over 90% (and it is an even higher proportion down south, where we live). As a result, most of the very small evangelical churches in Italy have historically not celebrated Christmas (or Easter), as a way of differentiating themselves from what they see as a Catholic holiday that has lost any real meaning or focus on Jesus. (I could write a whole article reflecting on this – but that’s not what I’ve been asked to do for now!) This means that we are not particularly busy at this time of year. It’s not the end of the school year, so it’s just a time to look forward to the first break from school since it started back in mid-September. Although there will be pages and pages of holiday homework for our eldest two children (7 and 9 years old).

Our work with students

So, what is on the agenda today? We do, in fact, have a couple of events to wrap things up with our students before the winter holidays. We serve with the GBU, University Bible Groups, and we are praising God for the great group of Christian students involved in weekly Bible studies during first semester, as well as some non-believing friends who have come to investigate. We are keen to finish things well! This has also been my first semester taking responsibility for running our local group, so I have some meetings with our student leaders to check-in on how they are going and celebrate what God’s been doing amongst us over the last few months. Two weeks ago, we welcomed more than 20 non-Christian friends to an event we organised with an evangelistic talk about our identity in Christ. We have much to be thankful for.

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An event with an evangelistic talk in Bari.

Reconsidering Christmas

I am also preparing a talk for a women’s event this coming Sunday. If you were to look at the flyer, the word ‘Christmas’ is noticeably absent, but it looks very festive, nonetheless. I am hoping it is a good chance to get together as the women of our church, and also invite some friends who will then hear the gospel message. This year I’ll be speaking about the ’surprise’ of the incarnation and challenging us not just to consider Christmas a celebration for children – something I’ve heard most parents at school agree on over the last few weeks. For example, “I just hope they’re not still sick for Christmas – after all, we do it all for them!” and variations thereof.

Celebrating with our family

As a family, we really enjoy going through the Names of Jesus Advent calendar in December. This year I’ve noticed that we can ask our kids more about what they understand as each name is turned over, one day after another. For example, what does it mean that Jesus is our ’redeemer?’ (I also used this moment to introduce them to the Keith Green version of “There is a Redeemer,” which they are only familiar with in Italian because we sing it regularly at our church in Bari). It’s exciting to be able to share more deeply the significance of who Jesus is with our kids as they grow up.

This year, we will have a family member visiting for Christmas. It reminds me how different things are from our last three-year term serving in Italy, during and just after the pandemic. I am very grateful to God for the way he brought us through those difficult and very isolating years, and the joy he has given us in this current moment. It’s also great to remember and reflect on the joy of being together as we remember the birth of Jesus Christ, Immanuel, God with us!

Like many Australians, I’m also thinking about what food we might eat to celebrate. Every year, it feels like we are continuing to ‘invent’ what Christmas looks like for us in our very different context. No mangoes, no watermelon, but the Christmas lights are shining bright in the dark at only 4.30pm, and Christmas Eve means ‘aperitivi’ with friends (and usually a huge feast at midnight, but this Aussie family with young children won’t be attending…not yet anyway!).

So Happy Christmas! Let’s not forget how very amazing it is that God is with us.