Festivals of Western Europe, by Dorothy Gladys Spicer, , at sacred-texts.com
CAPO D'ANNO (New Year's Day) January 1
New Year's Day is celebrated with services in the churches, parties, visits, and all kinds of festivities. Children receive strenna, or money gifts, from their parents, while friends and relatives send each other flowers and bunches of mistletoe. Since early times Italians have attributed to mistletoe such miraculous properties as healing sickness, curing sterility in women and animals, and quenching fire. Today a piece of mistletoe is hung over the door to "bring luck" to all the household.
LA VIGILIA DELL' EPIFANIA (Epiphany Eve) January 5
Children receive gifts at Epiphany, in memory of the presents the Wise Men offered the Christ Child; but, unlike the tradition in Spain and some other countries, it is not the Magi who bring the gifts, but la Befana, the little old fairy witch woman. The name befana is probably a popular corruption of Epifania, or Epiphany, the feast that commemorates the visit of the Three Kings to Bethlehem's manger.
According to the legend current in Italy, Sicily and Sardinia, the Befana was sweeping her house when the Kings cqme by with offerings for Bambino Gesu. When the old woman was invited to accompany them, she tartly replied that she was too busy with her work. Later, however, when her sweeping was done, she took her broom and started out toward Bethlehem. She lost her way and could not find the Bambino, for whom she still searches.
Each year la Befana goes through Italy. Boys and girls write letters to her, asking for the presents they want, just as American children write to Santa Claus. The spry old witch slides down chimneys on her broom and always stuffs good children's stockings or shoes with pretty toys, but leaves pebbles, charcoal, or bags of ashes for those who are naughty.
In Rome preparations for Epifania start early in December with the famous toy fair in the Piazzo Navona. Fascinating toys dangle invitingly from the hundreds of gaily decorated stalls that are erected about the fountains. There are all sorts of holiday sweets, gay balloons and charming little painted figures for the Christmas presepi, or mangers.
The Piazza is thronged with children, young laughing mothers, bent old men and withered grandmothers who move from booth to booth--gossiping, bargaining, exchanging greetings and buying toys for the Befana to leave on Epiphany Eve.
The fair continues until January 5, when everyone buys at least one tin horn or trumpet, or perhaps a brightly-painted little clay figure that disguises a shrill whistle. The crowd surges back and forth through the Piazza, laughing, jostling, whistling and blowing, until all Rome seems mad and the air shrieks with deafening sound. To add to the general pandemonium processions of youths march about, blowing on large cardboard trumpets.
Epiphany Eve customs vary from place to place. In Adriatic coast towns and villages bands of men and boys go about from house to house, singing traditional Epiphany songs, and receiving small gifts in return. At Varenna, on Lake Como, men dressed like the Three Kings and their retinue go through the countryside with torches, bestowing gifts on the needy. In some other parts of the country people build bonfires. Dancing about the fires, they predict good or bad weather for the coming months, according to the direction from which the smoke blows.
EPIFANIA (Epiphany), in Niscemi, Caltanissetta province, Sicily January 6
"Clothing the Child Jesus" is the name of an old Epiphany custom which is observed at Niscemi. A poor parish child is borne naked to the church, where he is dressed to represent the Infant Jesus. After special religious services, a procession of priests and worshipers, carrying all kinds of gifts, take the child home to the joyous accompaniment of native bagpipes.
CARNEVALE (Carnival) January 17 to Ash Wednesday
Carnevale always begins on January 17 and continues until Ash Wednesday. The ceremonies of the last three days of the carnival are the gayest, especially those of Martedi Grasso, or Shrove Tuesday. Throughout Italy the occasion is celebrated with colorful pageants, masquerades, dancing, music and all kinds of merrymaking.
Every Italian town and village has its own special celebrations. In some places a Parade of the Months is a carnival event. Allegorical figures representing the twelve months, pay homage to the "King," who is attended by four harlequins. The Months sing traditional verses to the King and later, as the procession moves about from place to place, the harlequins are crowned as members of the King's retinue.
Martedi Grasso, in Venice, is celebrated by the appearance of King Carnival who is greeted with traditional ceremony. As always, King Carnival is represented as a fat man, for eating and drinking are characteristic of pre-Lenten revelry. His straw body is filled with firecrackers and explosives and his reign, although merry, is brief, since his body is burned at midnight in the Piazza San Marco.
SANT' AGATA (Saint Agatha), in Catania, Sicily February 3, 4, 5
Saint Agatha, the rich and beatiful young Sicilian virgin whom a Roman prefect put to death in 251 because she refused to yield to him, is one of Sicily's most beloved martyrs. She is patroness of nursing mothers and women suffering from diseases of the breast, because her own breasts were amputated during the tortures she endured. In all her trials she remained steadfast in the faith, and Saint Peter himself is said to have ministered to her wounds.
Every Italian loves the Palermo-born Saint Agatha, but she is shown special reverence at Catania, where her relics are preserved in a silver-sculptured casket. Her festa begins on February 3, and ends on February 5, anniversary of her death. On each of the three successive days, a silver bust of the saint wearing a jewel-studded crown is carried in procession from the Cathedral to the city's various churches.
The unique feature of the procession is the display of the ceri, or immense wooden replicas of candlesticks, which are painted, gilded, and carved with episodes from the saint's harrowing martyrdom. Tumultuous shouts of "Evviva Sant' Agata!" ring out every time the ceri bearers halt along the line of march. The streets through which the procession passes are gay with paper pennants and streamers, flowers, and colorful festa hangings attached to balconies and windows.
Strings of many-colored electric lights enliven the scene at night. People buy all kinds of sweets and holiday foods from temptingly arrayed street stalls. Later they throng to the piazza to see the wonderful firework displays without which no saint's day celebration is complete.
SAN GIUSEPPE (Saint Joseph) March 19
The anniversary of San Giuseppe, husband of the Virgin and patron of carpenters and cartmakers, and also of unwed mothers and orphans, is characterized in many places by feasting, merrymaking, most of all, by sharing with the needy. For was not St. Joseph himself a humble carpenter of Nazareth, a pious and generous protector, "a just man," in the words of the Bible?
The day of San Giuseppe is celebrated differently in different places but nowhere more picturesquely, perhaps, than in Sicily. Villagers often prepare a feast table, the tavola di San Giuseppe, at which those portraying the Holy Family are guests of honor. The Family consists of an aged carpenter, representing Joseph, a poor local girl who is the Madonna, and an orphan boy, the Bambino Gesu. Other guests include orphans, widows, and beggars.
Everyone in the village contributes a share to the banchetto, or banquet, according to his means--food, money, candles or flowers. The women prepare all kinds of regional dishes, which vary from place to place. In some localities, for example, there is hearty Minestrone, made with dried beans and vegetables. Neapolitans serve zeppole, or cream fritters. The Sienese have frittelle di San Giuseppe, Saint Joseph's fritters, which are sold from stalls outside the church that is dedicated to the saint. In Bologna there is ravioli di San Giuseppe, a delicious fried sweet, made with short crust instead of the usual ravioli dough, and filled with jam or almond paste.
In many places little cream puffs called Sfingi di San Giuseppe, are a favorite dessert. The puff shells, flavored with grated lemon and orange rinds, are filled with ricotta, Italian pot cheese, which is combined with chocolate and other tempting ingredients.
The feast is preceded by solemn morning mass. Then the priest and villagers lead the Holy Family in procession to the outdoor banchetto, where the food is blessed. Cheers of "Viva la tavola di San Giuseppe," go up, as the viands, which are first blessed by the Bambino, are distributed.
A procession follows the banquet. The Holy Family, mounted on mules, is hailed by the villagers and given gifts of food and money as they ride through the streets. The celebration continues with singing, merrymaking, and rejoicing as the inhabitants dance about bonfires in honor of their beloved San Giuseppe.
MEZZA QUARESIMA (Mid-Lent) The fourth Sunday in Lent
At Mezza Quaresima, or Mid-Lent, feste, parties, dances and all kinds of gay street celebrations provide a single day's respite from the severity and monotony of Lenten gloom.
Just as Carnevale is represented as a fat man, so Quaresima, or Lent, is a lean, witch-like old hag. In Venice young people dance hilariously about her rag-stuffed effigy, because Lent is half gone. In parts of the Abruzzi, Quaresima appears as a tow figure pierced with seven feathers. The effigy is suspended from a rope stretched from side to side of the street. On each Saturday in Lent villagers pluck out one feather with great rejoicing, since each represents one of the seven weeks of Lent.
Children often receive toys in the guise of a lean old woman with seven legs. At Mezza Quaresima boys and girls cut their figures in two, throwing half away and keeping half until the end of Lent.
DOMENICA DELLE PALME (Palm Sunday) The Sunday preceding Easter
Palm Sunday ceremonies, like all Holy Week observances, vary widely from one place to another. Usually the piazzas in front of small village churches and great cathedrals are filled with worshipers in gay spring clothes, and picturesque vendors of olive branches and palms. The olive branches are gilded or silvered while palms, cleverly plaited into crosses with charming decorative detail, often are adorned with roses, lilies, or other flowers.
After olive branches and palms are blessed at morning mass, an impressive service follows in commemoration of opening the gates of Jerusalem, when Jesus went into the city as "King of Israel."
For this ceremony the priests leave the church in procession and knock at a closed door--the "gate" of Jerusalem. The portals are flung open in welcome and the clergy make the symbolic triumphal entry amid waving palms and joyous music.
GIOVEDI SANTO (Holy Thursday) The Thursday preceding Easter
In some places in Sicily Giovedi Santo is observed with night processions of local guild members, who carry platforms with lifesized figures, representing various episodes in the Passion of Christ. Each guild is preceded by a band and followed by a group of men who stop now and then to explain in local dialect the story of the Last Supper, the Agony in the Garden, the Scourging, or whatever the scene depicts.
Both in Italy and in Italian communities of the United States, many churches reenact the ceremony of foot washing at the altar. Twelve poor men of the parish are chosen to represent the twelve Disciples. The priest performs the symbolic act of bathing the disciples' feet. Following the ceremony each of the men receives a loaf of bread and a gift of money.
On Holy Thursday the Easter Sepulcher, or "Sepulcher of Christ" is prepared for the Good Friday services. In some churches the sepulcher, which is a recess in the north wall of the chancel, is covered with flowers in symbol of the tomb of Jesus. At Saint Peter's, in Rome, the Host is ceremoniously placed on the altar of a side chapel, which on the following day represents the sepulcher.
VENERDI SANTO (Holy Friday) The Friday preceding Easter
In towns and villages throughout Italy dramatic processions go through the streets on Good Friday night with realistic figures of Jesus displayed on platforms. Sometimes the platforms, surrounded by flowers and candles, are borne on the shoulders of hooded and robed penitents. Sometimes young boys hold aloft large candles on long spiked poles, and men carry the cross, spear, crown of thorns and other Passion symbols. Lugubrious music, figures of angels displaying stained graveclothes and the sorrowing Virgin with clasped hands and agonized face, all add realism and pathos to these folk processions.
A deeply moving ceremony is held at Rapallo, near Genoa. A bier with the figure of the dead Jesus, the crown of thorns and nails of the cross, is carried from church to church through the town's dark winding streets. The only illumination comes from hundreds of tapers, burning in windows along the line of march. For hours the procession moves along its sorrowful route, accompanied by mourning men and women, uttering laments and singing penitential chants. After stopping at the Cathedral for the final mass, townsfolk carry their dead Christ to the nearby Baptistry and place the bier on the floor. Large white candles burning at the four corners of the bier cast flickering shadows across the figure of the inert blood-stained body. The melting wax sputters and falls in little pools on the floor. Devout worshipers come and go, kneeling before the image and praying.
SABATO SANTO (Holy Saturday), in Florence, province of Tuscany The Saturday preceding Easter
The Mass of Glory ending at noon on Holy Saturday announces the beginning of the Resurrection festa. The church bells which, in memory of Jesus' sufferings, have not rung since Holy Thursday, now peal out joyously. The churches, shrouded in gloom throughout the week, suddenly come to life. The black draperies drop from the altars, revealing figures of the risen Lord. Tapers are lighted. Joy and gladness succeed darkness and sorrow.
Customs vary from place to place. Florentines observe the ceremony of the Scoppio del Carro, the Explosion of the Car, which probably is one of the country's most picturesque Holy Saturday observances.
The ancient Florentine family of de'Pazzi inaugurated the Scoppio del Carro by contributing a splendid exposive-filled car to the religious procession which carried a flaming torch from the altar of the church to another. The torch was lighted from a spark made by rubbing a flint against a fragment of stone, reputedly a piece of the Holy Sepulcher, which was brought to Florence during the Crusades.
Thousands assemble every year in the Piazza del Duomo before the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, to watch the spectacular explosion.
The modern Carro, an immense, colorfully-decorated wooden car with fireworks attached, is drawn into the piazza by white oxen and placed before the cathedral doors. A wire runs from the high altar inside the cathedral to the Car in the piazza. A dove-shaped rocket, ignited at the altar as mass terminates with the singing of the Gloria, shoots out along the wire through the open doors and sets fire to the explosives. The Carro bursts with tremendous noise and splendor.
Tuscan farmers watch the ceremony with fascination and dread. They believe that if the dove rocket performs adequately, harvests will prosper in the coming year; if anything goes wrong, however, crops will be bad and the season poor.
LA PASQUA (Easter)
Easter is a joyous day. After morning mass people generally eat, drink, visit and rejoice in the passing of Lenten gloom and the glory of the risen Christ.
Food plays an important part in the day's festivities and traditional specialties are as numerous as the country's towns and villages. Agnellino, roasted baby lamb, is universally popular for the Easter dinner, especially when served with carciofi arrostiti, roasted artichokes, with pepper, salt, and slivers of garlic discreetly hidden between the leaves. Brodetto Pasquale, a delicious Easter broth, delicately herb-flavored, often starts off the feast, while holiday breads, pastries, and small cakes abound in every region. One seasonal treat that children in many places enjoy is a rich bread shaped like a crown and studded with colored Easter egg candies.
SAN NICOLA (Saint Nicholas), in Bari, province of Apulia May 7, 8
Italians celebrate the festa of San Nicola, prototype of the modern Santa Claus, on May 7 and 8, anniversary of the trqnsfer of the saint's relics to Bari, rather than on December 6, his calendar day. La Befana, not San Nicola, is the children's gift bearer, but the good saint is deeply loved and revered as protector of virgins, orphans, schoolboys, seamen, pawnbrokers, pirates, robbers, and many others.
In the eleventh century sailors brought the saint's relics to Bari from Myra, Asia Minor, where he died as Archbishop in 326. Today his bones rest in the crypt of the Romanesque Church of San Nicola, which was begun in 1087 in the saint's honor. Thousands of pilgrims come from far and near to worship at the tomb of the wonderworking saint and to ask his help for the sick, for children, for those at sea, for all who sin.
Legends abound concerning the saint who gives protection to hardened sinners no less than to the young and innocent. One of the best known stories tells how the saint learned of the plight of three girls, daughters of an impoverished noble, who had no dowries. To save them from becoming prostitues, San Nicola, who had inherited a fortune, secretly went at night to the nobleman's house and tossed through the window a bag of gold as a dowry for the eldest daughter. The next night he repeated the act in behalf of the second daughter. On his third visit, however, the nobleman, who was awaiting the appearance of the unseen benefactor, caught at the saint's robe and tried to thank him. San Nicola made the grateful father promise never to reveal his identity, and slipped away.
This story explains how San Nicola came to be regarded as the protector of young girls of marriagable age, as well as the patron of pawnbrokers, who adopted three gold balls as their symbol.
San Nicola is not an Italian saint. He was born in Asia Minor and there he died; but when infidels threatened desecration of his tomb at Myra, brave Barese mariners risked their lives, in answer to a vision, to carry his body by sea to their city. This is why, each year, sailors of Bari take San Nicola's image to the water in solemn procession. The saint's statue, robed in gorgeous gold and red vestments, with jewelled miter and archbishop's staff, is surrounded by flowers and carried aloft, accompanied by chanting and bands, high-ranking churchmen, seamen, and pilgrims with lighted candles.
At the wharf the statue is placed on a vessel decorated with flowers and banners and taken out to sea. Hundreds of small craft, crowded with pilgrims and fishermen follow the image, to pay their respects and seek the saint's blessing. At night the image is returned to its place of honor on the silver-embossed altar of San Nicola's crypt, and the great festa ends with spectacular displays of fireworks.
FESTA DEL GRILLO (Cricket Festival), in Florence, province of Tuscany The fortieth day after Easter
In most European countries Ascension Day, the fortieth after Easter, is the early spring holiday when families go to the country to picnic and spend the day out of doors. Many Florentines do not go to the country, but spend the day out-of-doors enjoying the spring in their own unique fashion. Parents pack generous lunch baskets, gather up the children, and flock to Cascine Park to celebrate with them the Festa del Grillo, or Festival of the Cricket, for the chirping cricket is a symbol of spring.
Hundreds of brightly-painted wicker or wire cages imprisoning hundreds of crickets caught in the Park, dangle from vendors' stalls. Each child must have his caged grillo, for tradition says it brings good luck if it still sings, when carried home.
In the past children hunted their own grilli on this day, but now the insects are sold in cages. Food stalls with sweets, ices, and soft drinks; balloon stalls with hundreds of red, blue, orange, and green balloons, hundreds of youngsters scurrying hither and yon with little painted cages--all make this festa one of the happiest and gayest spring events for everyone--except the grilli!
CORPUS DOMINI (Corpus Christi) The Thursday following Trinity Sunday
Corpus Christi, the festival honoring the institution of the Eucharist, is celebrated with splendor throughout the country. Each town and hamlet observes the day in its own fashion, but everywhere flowers, music, church banners, and colorful processions give beauty and picturesqueness to the event.
The fragrant mosaic flower carpets of Genzano, on Lake Nemi, are among the most beautiful of all Corpus Christi decorations. For blocks the brilliant flower petal tapestries mark the route over which priests in embroidered vestments carry the Blessed Sacrament. Often the petals are made in geometrical patterns, armorial designs, the Angel of Peace, or other elaborate motifs.
At Brindisi the outstanding feature of the procession is a richly-caparisoned white horse which the Archbishop rides at the head of the procession.
In Perugia the Corpus Christi procession, which starts from the Gothic Cathedral, is elegant and splendid, with rich banners, lighted candles and flowers. Balconies and windows are draped with brilliant hangings, and bystanders toss flowers in the path of the Sacrament as it is reverently carried through the streets.
CORSO DEL PALIO (Race for the Palio), in Siena, province of Siena July 2
The Corso del Palio, Race for the Palio, is the name of the spectacular horse race which the Sienese hold twice a year in the Virgin's honor. The first race, on July 2, is for the armless Madonna di Provenzano; the second, on August 16 (the day following Assumption) honors the Madonna del Voto, protectress of Siena. The Palio, one of Italy's most colorful events, originated in the thirteenth century and has retained its medieval character throughout the years.
The treacherous race track is the narrow cobbled road surrounding the shell-shaped Piazza del Campo, a magnificent natural amphitheatre which is dominated on one side by the beautiful Gothic Palazzo Pubblico.
Siena is divided into seventeen contrade, or wards, each of which goes by the name of the symbol painted on its silk banner. Nobody seems to know the origin of these contrade symbols, which include such colorful names as Unicorn, She-Wolf, Snail, Dragon, and Tortoise.
Ten of the contrade are contestants in the race, and they are selected by lot from the total number, since the race course is too narrow to accomodate all seventeen. A barbero, or race horse is assigned by lot to each contrada, which chooses its own jockey. The prize--one of glory, not of money--is a magnificent black and gold fringed banner. This standard is awarded to the winning contrada and is kept at its headquarters as a proud symbol of prowess in winning the race for the Virgin.
On the morning of the race the Palio is blessed in church, and before the event riders and their barberos, decorated with the colors of their ward, are blessed at the altars of the churches in the respective contrade.
Before the race a gorgeous medieval procession parades around the race course. First come the mace bearers, then the contrade with their officials, pages, horsemen, drummers and trumpeters, all dressed in colorful costumes of the Middle Ages. Among the most picturesque figures in the procession are the standard bearers who toss and twirl the heavy silk contrada banners with a grace and skill possible only after generations of practicing the ancient art of flag throwing.
The stately procession moves about the Piazza del Campo amid the wild cheers and deafening plaudits of the crowd. Last of all, a pair of white oxen with gold and black trappings, draw the cart with the Palio, the trophy for the winning contrada.
Just before the race begins each jockey is given his nerbo, a stinging ox-sinew whip which Palio rules permit him to use in trying to unseat his opponent or to incapacitate his opponent's horse if, by so doing, he can press his own mount on to victory.
The winning jockey is raised on the shoulders of the crowd. His horse is showered with caresses. After a brief prayer of thanksgiving at the race course, both rider and horse return to the church in the contrada to offer further expressions of gratitude for victory.
Revelry, music and merrymaking, a victory banquet and toasts to the winning jockey and horse continue far into the night as the victorious contrada celebrates the glorious race in honor of the Virgin.
IL GIORNO DEI MORTI (The Day of the Dead) November 2
Throughout Italy people decorate the graves of the dead with flowers and candles on Il Giorno dei Morti. At five o'clock in the morning solemn masses are announced by the church bells tolling as for the passing of the dead.
In spite of the day's somber beginning Il Giorno dei Morti is not entirely a period of gloom; for like all other Italian feste, it has its own traditional foods and picturesque customs. Fave dei Morti, beans of the dead, is the name given to delectable little bean shaped cakes, made of ground almonds and sugar, combined with egg, butter, flour, and flavoring. These small cakes are white, or are tinted pink or chocolate. In the vicinity of Rome young people often announce engagements on the Day of the Dead. The man sends the engagement ring to his fiancee in the conventional little white box, but this is traditionally packed in an oval container filled with fave dei morti.
In Sicily where the ancient cult of the dead is possibly strongest, children look forward to November 2 with great anticipation. If they are "good," mind their elders, and pray for the departed during the year, the morti, or souls of the family dead will return on this night with presents of sweets and toys.
Gaudily colored, tinsel-trimmed, candy dolls are among the children's most coveted gifts in the Palermo area. Large and small figures of historical characters, dancing girls, fair ladies, and plumed knights are some of the many candy doll favorites which make Il Glorno dei Morti a real festa to boys and girls.
SAN MARTINO (Saint Martin) November 11
From Venice in the north to Sicily in the south, it Is traditional to taste the new wine on the day of San Martino. According to legend San Martino shared his cloak with a poor drunkard who stumbled and fell. Consequently his festa is celebrated freely by all lovers of wine.
Customs vary from village to village, but in many places people sample the new wine on this day, feast and carry San Martino's statue in colorful procession through all the town's byways and alleys.
SANTA LUCIA (Saint Lucy), in Syracuse, Sicily December 13
Tradition says that Santa Lucia, patroness of Syracuse, was born about 283, of noble family. She had her eyes removed because their beauty had attracted a heathen nobleman. Her rejection of her suitor led first, to her torture, and eventually to her death by the sword.
Santa Lucia, one of Italy's most beloved saints, is patroness of all who suffer from diseases of the eye. Her image in the Duomo, at Syracuse, represents the young Christian martyr holding her eyes in a vessel. Throughout Italy and Sicily her festa of December 13 (she has another on May first) is celebrated with bonfires, torchlight processions, and illuminations. This "feast of lights" is appropriate, since people say that Lucia became blind on the shortest day of the year.
In Syracuse the day of Lucia's martyrdom is observed with a magnificent procession in which her bier is carried through the streets by torchlight. The festa of May 1 commemorates the miracle of food which came to Syracuse during a great famine, when the desperate inhabitants went to the Duomo to implore Santa Lucia's help. While the people were praying, a ship laden with life-giving wheat entered the harbor and saved the city from starvation. This is why Italians always eat cuccidata, cooked wheat, on both of Santa Lucia's festival days.
LA VIGILIA (Christmas Eve) December 24
Christmas in Italy is a religious festival which begins with a Novena of devotional preparation and a twenty-four hour fast, from sunset of December 23 to sunset of December 24. In most homes the first day of the Novena is observed by making ready the presepio, or miniature Bethlehem manger, which represents the essence of Christmas to most Italians. On each morning throughout the Novena many families oather before the presepio to light the candles and offer prayers. The preseplo, with its charming clay or wooden figures of the Holy Family, the angels, shepherds, and kings, are said to have originated over seven hundred years ago with Saint Francis of Assisi.
In many families the Bethlehem mangers are precious heirlooms, handed down and added to, from one generation to the next. For weeks before Christmas small manger figures are on sale in every market and village fair. The settings usually are fashioned in the homes from cardboard, moss, and bits of twig, or from more professional properties. Sometimes backgrounds are very elaborate, showing the sacred grotto, the tavern, shepherds' huts, and shining pools, all set in a charming Italian landscape. The figures of the Magi journey across the countryside with their camels and precious gifts. Angels, suspended from invisible wires, seem to sing joyous hallelulahs and ragged shepherds kneel before the tiny pink-cheeked Babe, with their offerings of flowers, fruits, and new-born lambs.
In parts of Calabria and the Abruzzi zampognari, or itinerant bagpipers come down from the mountains and go about from house to house playing pastoral hymns before the Bambino Gesu of the little homemade mangers at village shrines. The musicians receive gifts of food or money at the various homes.
Christinas Eve is strictly a family gathering. When the candles are lighted before the presepi, the children "surprise" their elders by reciting little verses learned weeks in advance. At last the cenone, or festa supper is served. This is a meatless meal with many regional variations. Capitoni, a variety of large eel, is vastly popular among the well-to-do. Fish of all kinds and fowl are also typical seasonal foods, while cardoni, or artichokes cooked with eggs, often accompany eel dishes. Of course, there are all kinds of fancy holiday breads, including panettone, the famous currant loaf, and such sweets as cannoli, a cheese-filled pastry, torrone, or nougat, and many other delicacies.
The Yule log, rather than the Christmas tree, is important to Italian boys and girls. Sometimes they tap it with little sticks, asking for the gifts they want. In certain places the children assemble about the log and are blindfolded. Starting with the youngest, each one recites a little verse to the Bambino Gesu. When their bandages are removed, the children see before them little presents the Bambino has left. Few presents are given on Christmas Eve, and then only simple things for small children and old people. Epifania, as already seen, is the time for gift giving.
Family parties continue until almost midnight when everyone attends church services and worships before life-sized figures of the Holy Family. In some rustic areas peasants lay modest gifts of nuts, flowers, and vegetables at the Christ Child's feet; in other places processions for the Bambino are accompanied by shepherds from the hills who play on bagpipes and flutes.
Christmas Day is generally a sacred holiday, celebrated with religious services in the churches and quiet family gatherings in the homes.
SANTO STEFANO (Saint Stephen), in Baiano, province of Avellino December 26
People of Baiano celebrate the festival of Santo Stefano, the first Christian martyr, whom the Bible describes as "full of faith and the Holy Spirit," by chopping down a fine strong chestnut tree, called the maio, and setting it up in the church piazza. Woodcutters and young men hew down the tree, which they load on a specially constructed bullock cart and take to the piazza.
Amid music, rejoicing, and the blessing of the priests, the men set the martyr's tree in a deep hole and surround it with wood supplied by the townsfolk. Then, to the dramatic firing of rifles, the maio finally is ignited. After the fire has died down the ashes are sold for charitable purposes.
Boiled or roasted chestnuts are eaten on this day in honor of the martyr saint.