ROME—Five-year-old Giovanni Pernaci stared up at the massive Christmas tree towering over a green patch of grass littered with pine needles in Piazza Venezia and asked his grandfather a simple question: “What’s wrong with the tree, Nonno?”
His grandfather, also named Giovanni Pernaci, just shook his head and pulled the curious child away. “Let’s get out of here before it falls on us,” the older man said in disgust, echoing the general feeling about the threadbare pine that has been officially pronounced dead by Italy’s environmental ministry.
The tree has been deemed by some as a perfect symbol for the decline of the Italian capital and the nation at large. It has been called a toilet brush, a bottle cleaner, and is now simply referred to as “spelaccio,” which means mangy in Italian.
The €50,000 tree came from a forest near the Austrian border in northern Italy, and was noticeably limp when the city put it up Dec. 1, sparking a flurry of accusations about whether a dead tree was an attempt to shame Rome Mayor Virginia Raggi, who coincidentally announced she would not be running for re-election to lead the troubled city as the criticism grew louder.
The city of Rome’s agricultural union opened an investigation into the tree’s condition to rule out sabotage. It found that the tree’s root ball had been damaged, and that it had not been properly covered on the 430-mile trek to Rome. The forest owners who donated the tree say it was in fine shape when it left in late November.
But the condition of the dead tree didn’t stop workers from hanging silver balls and stringing lights, begging the question about whether the dried-out brittle branches pose a fire risk. The balls occasionally slip off the mostly bare branches, and gusts of wind send what’s left of the sharp needles flying through the air like tiny little arrows. Street workers have been put on overtime to keep up with the falling needles, which create a slip hazard for anyone on two legs or two wheels.
Of course, there have been plenty of online memes from the mess. Odes to Linus Van Pelt’s Charlie Brown Christmas tree are aplenty, including with many with Linus’s famous words: “I never thought it was such a bad little tree. It's not bad at all, really. Maybe it just needs a little love.”
And some ingenious Roman created the @spelaccio Twitter account, which now has more than 5,000 followers and tweets ancient Roman battle cries and insults in Roman dialect, including a rather unsavory one about the weight of the 8,000 balls on its spindly back. The tree has also tweeted that “rumors of my death” are nothing but “fake news.”
Sympathy notes on Christmas cards are hung on the lower branches, and local and international news channels have all dedicated ample time to sappy saga.
But the most common complaint by Romans may be one of tree-envy—as the Vatican’s tree in the middle of St. Peter’s Square, just across the Tiber River, is a far better one than the Eternal City’s.
Yet the Holy See has its own questionable Christmas decorations this year, too, including a giant statue of a naked and incredibly ripped man with his mouth agape and sprawled out on rather itchy-looking hay bale with just a white silky cloth loosely covering his genitals. Many have smirked that the scene is homoerotic, clearly chosen by the Vatican’s powerful gay lobby that even Pope Francis has acknowledged.
Officially, the Vatican says the nudity is meant to represent the seven “corporal works of mercy” that also include a ghostly white dead man being prepared for burial. One fringe blog claims the nudity is so raw that Facebook denied the use of a photo when they tried to post it. “Your ad can’t include images that are sexually suggestive or provocative,” Facebook apparently gave as the reason.
“People are grumbling about the naked man who is being clothed as an act of mercy. Some are also creeped out by the dead person being prepared for burial because it looks like a scene from a horror film,” wrote Rev. Dwight Longenecker, a priest who pens a popular blog about Catholic issues. “Like most things in the Catholic Church, we’ve been there before. Folks were not pleased at all the naked bodies in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel paintings, and you’ll see lots of partial nudity or gruesome scenes in plenty of Catholic arworks. David holding Goliath’s severed head? Jael nailing Sisera’s head to the ground with tent stake? For goodness sake, the central image of our faith is that of a naked man tortured, exposed, and nailed to an execution tree.”
There’s clearly no place like Rome for the holidays.