ISSUES,INSIGHTS AND COLOURFUL MOMENTS-FROM THE DESK OF AN ENGLISH AUTHOR.
Christmas. The greatest recycling package in history draws near. How many hectares of paper; miles of string and ribbon; ball point pens run dry; credit cards ‘down and out’, can the world sustain. Quite a lot, given the amount of profits and Panettone at stake. So, as far as I’m concerned, I trust it will be a Christmas for beginners, those with proper babies not yet grown into sulky teenage automatons programmed by their smartphones. In a burst of efficiency I consulted Molesworth’s ‘How to Survive the Atomic Age’, only to find it was a ‘Guide to Gurls’, and I’d lost my way in that jungle before I reached the age of majority. For us genteel souls then, it’s the time of year to put the brakes on, and slow the process down a little. Right! I speak for myself, of course. Those of a convivial disposition, full of joie de vivre, can let their hair down, purchase a tin whistle, and keep going until the early hours of the morning. I will be in bed!
Have you noticed how suddenly the event comes round these days? I’ve hardly got used to my new toys! It’s probably because of all the grey hairs that now festoon my cranium. I’ve grown tired of trying to comb the few dark ones that remain into a more prominent position so as to avoid a zebra lookalike. It’s also the reason why I don’t grow a beard anymore. All that pepper and salt a youthful bod does not make. I’m thinking of lowering the bathrooms mirror so the top’s level with my eyes, then I can shave in peace.
Despite all these groans, we’re well fitted out for the event, having gathered in the winter fuel, and a few tons of pasta to see us through. Sadly, we don’t receive the bundles of Christmas cards these days, or send them so often ourselves, as like many, we seem to have succumbed to the Internet! God bless those die-hards who refuse to modernise and can still remember how to lick a stamp. My loved one, who saves everything, and has a trunkful of superlative examples, alphabetically arranged according to topic and, thereby, if need be, can hang up a good selection of cards to fascinate the locals. They make allowances for us stranieri, considering we’re a lonely thousand miles away from home. But why, they ask, would you send a card to a neighbour who’s just next door, and it’s pointless when the family will be with you, or you’ll be with them. It’s probably why the Tuscans are considered a little parsimonious in other regions. All down to the Medici, I imagine, who had a way with hoarding money, despite contrarily pampering artists with those golden florins. It appears my good lady is positively relieved at this state of play as less of the ‘glitter’ sort makes it through the Italian post, being the harbinger of all sorts of problems, and not at all eco friendly. I still don’t get the mince pies, you may remember I sadly lamented last year, but at least our daughter, cognizant that we Brit’s like to keep up appearances, posts us a substantial hamper including a Christmas pudding (I trust) to go along with the vin santo! Whether we get it on time is in the lap of the gods, and hopefully not on their plates.
One of the glories of the kingdom – queendom would sound ridiculous – was the old Royal Mail, not quite sold off with the rest of the silver, but now totally dependent on international acolytes to deliver the goods. Mostly they seem to follow the path of circumbendibus, and seem to have no known time of arrival. That governments fail to put their own house in order is one thing, but fobbing the public off with privatized incompetence quite another. As a devotee of private enterprise, with qualifications, I’m aware that the survival of the fittest has taken a wrong turning, and some dummkopf seems to be organising the whole show these days. Only hope our pudding arrives on time. When it does, it will be courtesy of Deutsche Post et al.
The Italians, on the whole, now celebrate in much the same way as the majority of western souls do, in what my dearest disapprovingly notes is now a 'gobbalized' Christmas. The Japanese, mostly Shinto with a touch of Buddhism thrown in, have had a Santa Claus for decades, but the Italians didn’t seem very keen on the old boy given his pagan background, though he’s managed to muscle in ahead of the traditional messenger of this joyous occasion with a lavish sackful of presents that are scattered too freely, swamping the moral message of Christmas. Now it’s a confusion, or cantiere, as the locals say, and they’ll have two festivals to cope with this seasonal activity. Christmas, December 25th, and Epiphany eve, January 5th, a more rumbustious event overseen by an old crone called La Befana who is the much older female equivalent of Santa Claus, and likewise, supposedly arrives down the chimney. Quite correctly, many believe she is closer to the spirit of Jesus who was not born to a prosperous family, and had to wait patiently for the arrival of his presents delivered by those oriental three kings from afar with not a Milky Bar between them. On that particular evening everyone gets into the fun of it. Even the local priest who arrived in the restaurant for dinner one year, dressed as a haggish Medea complete with piano accordion, layers of skirts and a fulsome brassier parked strangely on top of his bodice. As he was of a bulky form it narrowed down the identity of the lady accomplice to all this hanky-panky considerably. I don’t think Papa down there in Rome would have approved, but I bet our man would convert thousands to the cause.
In Italy the Christmas Presepio is still the central point of attention in many households, especially those with young children, and some of these theatrical scenes might seem to have a cast of thousands. Naples is the place for these little characters that gather round the crib, but far and wide across the whole peninsula they arrive like magic from dusty attics and battered trunks for their annual appearance. To be correct, though the Presepio is arranged for Christmas Eve, baby Jesus cannot appear in the crib until after midnight, something of a delight for the young children when they rush down on Christmas morning. Sometimes these characters are not so little, and seem to hang about long after the festival’s over. One such life size Presepio can be seen just as you enter the small village of Pancole close to Certaldo. Here the religious foundation spans the road, which passes beneath the church. As you do, take a peek left, and there they are, marching very colourfully down the hill to the stable. You can get in the Christmas spirit prior to the viewing as the excellent Cesani vineyard precedes it by a few hundred yards.
Presepio - Pancole.
Sadly, today an alarming quantity of presents will arrive presumptuously on Christmas proper in Italy, long before the old crone pokes her nose in. The festive lunch starts off with bubbly at €10 a bottle or three, and then a €2 look-alike when you’re under the table. The Tuscans don’t go mad on the decorations, except for the poached meats, which are served with extravagant sauce embellishments, though the pagan Christmas tree has managed to slip in, often of a garish plastic form squashed up in a corner next to a forty-inch television set. For this you can blame Umberto’s wife, Queen Margherita of Savoy, who was enamoured of the fairy at the top of a German conifer, and John Logie Baird. Otherwise, Christmas day resembles a rather gargantuan version of a bog standard Sunday lunch, plus oodles of Grappa, and obscure spirits some ancient, long departed, grandpa concocted. Well, who else could make such ghostly – sorry - ghastly stuff? Bravo! Much of this depends on where you are. If you’re expecting a roast turkey in Naples for example, you’re just as likely to find fish on the menu, as you might in any of the coastal regions. It’s not that fish are cheap, which they aren’t, but because the people have a maritime history rather than an agrarian one. Besides, Jesus is famous for dishing out fishes, not turkeys!
Naples Sea Bream (Orata) ready for the oven.
Of course, this image of Christmas is not what it was for Italian grandparents when they were children, nor, come to think of it, those in England either. Presents there were, but the natures of the gifts have completely changed. In the U.K. I doubt if a new pair of rugby boots along with the oranges, and nut filled chocolate bars in the stocking would go down a bomb these days where it’s all ‘grab and go’. If it’s not an ‘App enabled Droid’, or a ‘Nerf N-strike Mega series RotoFury Blaster’, you can forget it. ‘This is not it!’ as my old friend Crista would say.
The rural Italians, within living memory, can remember times we’d all rather forget. To be more in keeping with the original post- war festival there would only be a stocking containing the luxury of a mandarin orange, biscuits, and a sweet or two. If a special gift was later received, this would perhaps be from a benefactor of the church. Even Befana, now a figure of fun, was not always so. Once it was a time when the older boys from poor families, dressed up as old hags, knocked on the door of those better off farms and villas in the hope, not of a present, but of food, a tradition that on the whole, seems to have been generously supported. A couple of decades later saw all this shuffled ‘under the carpet’. When we first arrived in Italy, it was quite common for a family to eat out at the local trattoria, which was a gift to the long-suffering housewife. Eldest son at the head of the table, wife on his right, and austere grandma dressed all in black on his left, giving the evil eye to any noisy offspring at the other end. But the pendulum swings. Like nearly everything else, family restaurants are few and far between, and costs have risen to such dizzy heights that the tradition seems to have gone by the board. Still, I’m glad to say the Italians don’t seem to like Christmas puddings. Perhaps the sprig of holly on top with its red berries has some sort of evil connotation.
And then there’s the midnight mass, once a ‘must do’ event for the faithful, now an occasion for ladies to bring out the fur coats (laced with the odour of mothballs) so it resembles sitting amongst a crowd of smelly bears. Even the church has to keep pace with change, if only temporarily. At the Etruscan cum Medieval city of Volterra the cathedral has failed its MOT, and is out of bounds. So I expect the event will likely take place at the substitute church of St. Lino, a local lad who was a pal of St. Peter, and became the second Pope, a case of whom you knew, even then.
St. Lino - Volterra Duomo. (Raffaello Consortini 1908-2000.)
Midnight Mass is a modern metropolitan event that in rural Tuscany was not at all feasible for country folk until well after the Second World War when some sort of private transport became available. Electricity in rural parts only began to make an appearance during the middle of the last century, and women in outlying hamlets, who made up the majority of the congregation, couldn’t be expected to venture forth alone at the midnight hour, even to walk a pitch black quarter of a mile to the local church. The men, you see, were hardly likely to accompany them, as apparently, most were communists, if not anarchists. Church was out, even if the local country osteria, or once Fascist city circolo, was in!
If we take part in this religious event, as aliens, we will sit at the back so as to avoid the embarrassment of not joining the queue in a rush to greet the host. We try to keep a low profile, especially during this mêlée of the communion rite, when the whole congregation seems to have lined up after the confession in an annual show of contrition. I have to admit I’m not a believer, but I do have a strong respect for tradition, being part of the glue, which holds our society together. So our presence is not a contradiction, but a reflection on shared values, and God won’t mind our presence, hushed and shivering amongst the whisker twitching church mice that have had to make room for us. After all, even they can appreciate that the strong odour of Laphraiog is merely redolent of getting into a Christmas spirit!
(Constantine? He was the first Christian Roman emperor who pinched the Saturnalian festival held on December 25th, and named it Nativitatis (from nativus – that has arisen by birth – hence Nativity.) He’s also believed to be the first historical Spoilsport.)
Here, I must take my leave, but not before wishing you a very happy and tranquil Christmas season. Auguri e Buon Natale.