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Italians holding on to lire and traditions

December 24, 1996

ROME (AP) _ This Christmas, Italians are holding on to both their lire and their traditions. Expensive presents are out; dear old customs like Nativity scenes are in.

A stagnant job market _ unemployment runs 12 percent nationally and nearly double that in the south _ combined with new taxes for 1997 have apparently made Italians stingy about gift-giving, according to a survey published in Italian papers Tuesday.

Christmas shopping has fallen off. Only 12.3 percent of those polled in the 10-city survey planned to spend more this year on Christmas. Thirty-nine percent said they would spend less, and the rest _ nearly half _ said they would spend the same as last year.

Instead, Italians are marking the holiday in more traditional ways. More than 85 percent of households surveyed reported putting up a traditional Christmas tree or creche scene, and more than 50 percent had both.

Until the early ’90s, many Italians were obsessed with buying the latest cellular phone or dressing in designer fashions _ from eyeglasses on down.

Then corruption scandals crimped Italian style. Being showy was out, and prosecutors’ probes drastically cut the free flow of government contracts. Western Europe’s economic slowdown compounded the purse-tightening.

``Given the very heavy economic situation, the spiritual aspect is becoming a growing source of refuge for Italians,″ said Filippo Simone, of the Osservatorio di Milano polling company, which conducted the survey.

In Milan, where the scandals broke in 1992, the number of Italians intending to go to Christmas Mass has steadily risen, from 54 percent in 1993 to 63 percent this year, Simone noted. The poll’s margin of error was 4 to 5 percentage points.

Italians are clinging tighter to other Christmas customs as well. Displaying a miniature creche, many with terra cotta figures of Baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph and the shepherds that have been handed down through generations, is especially strong in the south. In the colder north, trees are particularly popular.

The high percentage of creche users has been reassuring to a country that saw a brief hoopla over fears that some public schools in the northeastern city of Padua were banning Nativity scenes. The alarm, sounded by a priest, sounded strange in a country where the secular and religious generally coexist peaceably. Many courtrooms, for example, have crucifixes.

Carla Bertolo, a spokeswoman for Padua, said there was no such ban on creches.

``I can tell you that in the courtyard of the 16th-century palace where the city government makes its home has a Nativity scene,″ Bertolo said.

Touring shows of creches, both antique and modern, is a favorite holiday pastime. Italians stroll from one show to another just as Americans wander through big cities looking at holiday window displays.

Two of those strollers Tuesday were Patrizia Rafti and her 2-year-old daughter, Flavia, taking in the 21st annual creche show in Rome.

As Flavia slipped under the ropes to play with some of the figurines, her mother, a public school teacher, described how she instructs her students in the important holiday custom of making creches.

``For me the tradition of the creche is deeply religious and I try to pass it on to my daughter,″ Rafti said.

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