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Friday, December 11, 2009

The tastes and smells of Christmas.



(A little town in Southern Italy, circa 1946. War was ending. Allied Forces occupied the surrounding region, and many houses were without utilities. )


It was a cold night, snow had fallen for hours, and I was tired yet determined to remain awake in order to attend my first Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.

I was four years old. My plan was to join my parents and my big brother for this special Mass, though by now  grandmother and I would be in dreamland, hugging each other to stay cozy and warm.  On this eve, the family was preparing  the sweet pastries called panzotti, traditionally eaten on Christmas Day.

Mamma had mixed the yeast dough early in the day, had waited for it to rise as she cooked and chopped chestnuts, adding sugar, chocolate, cinammon and vermouth to make the filling, and had solicited  Pa`pa and To`ni, my big brother, to shape  and stuff these concoctions.  Pa`pa had the task of  frying them in a big iron cauldron, hung from a hook in the fireplace that was our only mode of cooking and heating in those days.

The room was dark and cold,  except for the light and warmth cast by the fire.  I could be spooked easily, and often, as I dozed off, I woke to see long shadows dancing in the corner, looking like a devil in hell. It took a few minutes to realize the image  was just  my Pa`pa at the fireplace.

My brother To`ni waited  for  the sizzling  pastries draining on kitchen towels to cool just enough to be rolled in the sugar mixture.  I wanted that job. But I was told to watch Gatto,  our cat, which grabbed food whenever she could. I kept busy chasing her off the table.

Now and then, she wanted to be let out. That's when everyone would shout at once: "CHIUDI LA PORTA!",  "shut the door!", as though it was my fault that Cat needed to do her thing. I was actually relieved that for a few minutes I didn't have to watch her and could help my brother sugar the pastries. After rolling a few, I stuffed one in my pocket, against  the rules.

Though I had never been at a Midnight Mass, I knew everything about it.  My cousin Maria, who was four years older had been an  angel for years. She bragged that she was the tallest and the holiest of angels. For weeks she pointed out the sins I was committing that would exclude me from the pageant. I had no idea I had committed a sin until Maria pointed it out to me. Did you know that it is a sin to wish for something too badly? That's what Maria said when I told her how much I wanted to play that part in the pageant.

The part of the Archangel was assigned the last minute and only to the holiest among angels.

Just before Midnight, the family bundled up in scarves, mittens and  woolen socks , and joined the neighbors through darkened streets making their way to the Church of Santa Maria.

With each step, I reviewed the pageant in my head, how costumes would be assigned, angels or shepperd, how the Archangel had to carry Baby Jesus to the manger the very last minute.  The first song would be, Tu scendi dalle stelle, O Re de Cielo.  I visualized very movement, every pose, every word. At one point, I slowed down to tie a shoe lace and took a furtive bite of the panzotto in my pocket.

 Sister Caterina spoke to me as I got in line with the other angels, asked why I hadn't changed into the Archangel's costume. I mumbled something back.  She looked distracted and preoccupied and  pointed to someone to take me.  I was then ushered  into the costume room and told to change into the Archangel's. I worried about what to do with my scarf and my mittens. I worried about  dropping Baby Jesus as I managed to put my costume on without any help.  I remained in that room, not knowing what to do next.

After a while, Maria came in. " The trumpet sound it's your cue," she said,"walk over to the manger, put Baby Jesus down, and stand behind the Holy Family. Just the way we practised."

Something in me so wanted to be The Archangel, that I swallowed my fear and nodded as though I knew what to do. When I heard the sound of the trumpet, I walked  to the designated place, a made-up village with life sized statues of Mary and Joseph , deposited a tiny statue of Bambino Ge`su in a cradle, and noticed he was wearing just a cloth diaper.  Under my costume, I still had  my scarf, which I took  off and wrapped all around him. Then, I fished out the rest of the panzotto for Bambino Ge`su,  and out came a sprinkling of sugar. I had finished not a crumb of panzotto left.

I burst out in tears, not knowing what to do next until Maria walked up to me, took my hand, and walked me over to where my parents were sitting, as the rest of the angels continued  their singing. 

"I'm sorry, Pa`pa. I only took one bite, only one bite. Will Baby Jesus forgive me? " I kept wailing, before Pa`pa wrapped me under his coat, and told me to shush.

I must have fallen asleep because I do not remember anything else until the next morning, when Nonna kicked me out of bed at the usual time, and woke me up with a cold wash cloth over my face.

As we sat to a proper breakfast of panzotti and hot milk, pa`pa noticed a letter under his bowl. He picked it up and read it.  " Caro Pa`pa e Mamma, Buon Natale."  It was the letter I penciled in with the help of my big brother.  Then, To`ni got up and read his letter. I listened to him read many words,  lovely sentiments that must have taken him months to paste down neatly on that special paper.

I wondered if Cat wrote a letter too when Nonna asked  if I had remained awake at the Midnight Mass, Pa`pa told her:

"She was awake. And she was the Archangel this year. From now on, there will be scarves on the Baby, and stardust sprinkled from pockets." He told her what happened, how I burst out in tears after my performance. Nonna looked at my worried face and said, "You got your wish, then!"  I had not told Nonna about wanting to be The Archangel.

Then Nonna yelled at Gatto, saying  "Baby Jesus must have returned your scarf!" putting the cat out and hanging the scarf  where Gatto couldn't reach it again. The house was warm, smelling of sugar and cinammon. Everyone was talking.

I slipped back in bed, to dream about panzotti and Bambino Ge`su.

40 comments:

Teri and the cats of Furrydance said...

What a lovely Christmas story to share with all of us...thank you

Simon C. Larter said...

A beautiful story, good lady. It warms like a fireplace in winter.

Eva Gallant said...

That was such a sweet story!

Brian Miller said...

i lost myself in your story for a few minutes...it was beautiful...thank you...

PurestGreen said...

Oh, what a grand story this is. I hope it made you feel good to retell it. And I must say those panzotto sound amazing. Yeast dough with chopped chestnuts, sugar, chocolate, cinammon and vermouth? Lions and tigers and bears...oh my!

Wander to the Wayside said...

I'm in awe that you remember something that happened at such a young age ... is it actually YOUR memory, or a remembered retelling of the story over the years? The reason I'm fascinated is that I have NO MEMORIES of my childhood, other than less than a handful of not so savory ones, until I'm in about the fifth or sixth grade. It's a lovely story, and one I'm sure you've already written down for posterity! Thanks for sharing.

ellen abbott said...

What a wonderful story and memory. the only vaguely interesting memory I have of Christmas is the one where I mortified my mother at christmas eve midnight services when I was 17. We got there late so we were sitting in the last, highest row of the balcony and when it came time to kneel the first time, I remained seated. I had told my mother in advance that I was not going to kneel (I was starting to form my own ideas about god and worship at that time) so there would be no surprises. She grabbed my arm and tried to force me to my knees which only made me resist all the more. After the prayer was over, she made us all get up and leave right then and that was the last time we ever went.

Elizabeth Bradley said...

What a Christmas treat. Lovely story, thanks for sharing.

Fire Byrd said...

Rosaria, this was just lovely. I could feel the warmth from the fire as your pa pa cooked the sweet treats. A lovely memory to have.

RNSANE said...

This was an enchanting tale of far off Italy to warm me on a cold San Francisco day. Thank you, Rosaria!

becky at abbeystyle said...

Charming story in a faraway place...thanks for the word pictures.

Eleonora said...

Simply wonderful, elegant and heartwarming, Maestra.
Thank you for sharing thie personal piece of Christmas memories with us.

Auguri,
Lola xx

Reya Mellicker said...

This is truly fantastic. Stardust for the baby Jesus! Wow, you are one great archangel, Rosaria!

Bogey said...

I have always believed that out of every Christmas, a special memory survives that remains with us for a lifetime. Thank you for sharing one of your special memories with us Rosaria. It brought some warm moisture to my eyes. Wishing you all the joy of the season and many, many more memories.

Monkey Man said...

Great story.

Natalie said...

Oh, that was so beautifully told, my mama heart was shedding a little tear for four year old Archangels.xx♥

Sandi McBride said...

Oh my, a lovely story and at just the right season! Thank you so very much for sharing...
Sandi

ds said...

Such a beautiful story. Thank you for sharing. "From now on there will be scarves on the baby and stardust sprinkled from pockets."
I'll bet there were.

The Things We Carried said...

Rosaria, I would read a whole book of this family!

Thank you for your comment today!

Sharon McPherson: AUTHOR / ARTIST said...

An original and sweet story. I'm all tingly now - looking forward to Christmas.

I liked your job of chasing Gatto from the food. That is a job I would have liked at four years old :)

My favourite line was when Nonna, '... woke me up with a cold cloth wash over my face.' I smiled; I was four years old again. Lovely story.

PS I always get so much from your comments, but your last comment has me walking on air, thank you so much. 'Hollywood' may never happen, however it's the journey not the destination ... right? And I'm loving the journey. :)

potsoc said...

When I was a 4 years old, I had candies on St-Nicholas Day but was afraid that "la Beffana" would steal them; then Christmax Day was the time for my stocking filled with apples and oranges. Oranges were then a delicacy available only around Christmas in our area of Saguenay. The real big time was to be had on New year's day. That is when we had our presents and family parties.
I still remember the last one we had at "ma tante Blanche" in 1946. She died that same year. I was then 15; we were 75 in her fur store basement, 32 of us were under 15 . We ate all the usual fare "tourtière, ragoût de pattes de cochon and boulettes de boeuf, tarte au sucre et aux raisins" and much to drink for the over 21. We usually went home well past midnight...and waiting for the street car at -20F sobered up most of the adults.

NitWit1 said...

I loved reading this story about customs and traditions with which I'm not familiar.

I love the scarf and cookie sprinkles. You are good at ad-libing--you just did not know it--in my lingo, you were just "winging it" and why shouldn't an archangel "wing it?"

karen said...

This is such a gorgeously told story, I just had to re-read it! Loved your earlier christmassy posts, too :)

Kikit said...

Like the others, I love this story as well. This is my fave line from your father:

"From now on, there will be scarves on the Baby, and stardust sprinkled from pockets."

:)

enchantedoak said...

I was right there with you on that cold night in 1946. It was a beautiful trip. You are good at memoir.
One evening just before Christmas, I walked with my mother to the high school choir performance, in which I was singing. It was deeply cold as we crossed the dark high school campus.
In the glow of one tall lamp, I saw the flakes of falling snow. We rarely got this treat, and it was lovely to see the snowfall in the lamplight as I walked and sang my soprano part of the Hallelujah Chorus.
That was 40 years ago this year and my mother is demented now, yet in that long-ago memory we walk together in the falling snow to the notes of the "Messiah."
Thank you for this chance to relive that moment.

Renee said...

The magic Rosaria and the innocence are making me cry.

Thank you for the early Christmas gift my dear angel.

Or should I say Archangel.

Love Renee xooxox

Journaling Woman said...

I love love this story. I felt like I was there. Thank you!

Oh My Goddess said...

I could feel myself in your beautiful church.
What a magical experience!
I'd love some panzotti!

Nancy said...

Beautiful Christmas story. What a sweet little child you were.

Dimple said...

You have written a lovely story which brought childhood and Christmas in Italy alive for me. I hope you have given copies to all your family, especially the younger ones. It brought tears to my eyes!

Sniffles and Smiles said...

This is absolutely fantastic! Obviously, you MUST begin writing your memoirs immediately if you haven't done so already! I love, love, love this story...it is so multi-layered and rich! And brought me many, many Christmas smiles, and jarred my own memories of childhood! This post is truly a gift! Thank you! Love you, Janine XO

Man of Roma said...

Merry Christmas Rosaria! One of your best stories indeed!

Sarah Laurence said...

Your recollections are so clear and evocative from what must have been a very special Christmas. I feel like we are there with you.

the walking man said...

A well said honest tale of the true nature of why we celebrate.

Dave King said...

A really moving story, vivid with the vividness of childhood throughout - and I remember those shadows of the shades from hell dan cing on the walls - thrown in my case by the night-lights.

Polly said...

Great, hearwarming Christmas story! Made me miss my family even more...

(I had no idea you were Italian!)

Woman in a Window said...

Oh my god, this is perhaps my favorite post of ever from anyone. It is beautiful. So beautiful. I laugh at Maria and her urging you to recognize your sins. I love your just one bite, and your father's saving it all with a spin of love and stardust sprinkled from pockets. I love your Nonna, her warmth and her cold cloth. This, THIS! deserves to be a part of a novel. Oh you. You have saved me this morning. Your story has come at the most perfect of times.

I am so glad I came to read you just now.

thank you~
xo
erin

Gaston Studio said...

A lovely Christmas memory Rosario, and so beautifully told. Especially love the sprinkling of stardust from pockets... beautiful!

And congrats on the Oh My Goddess award!

Derrick said...

Such a lovely story and well worth the OMG award. When you began, I coldn't help thinking of 'The Golden Girls' tv show and the character Sophia, who always began a tale with "picture this, Sicily 1947 ..." or whatever!, though your memory is far more heartwarming.

Merisi said...

Che bella storia!

Where in the South of Italy did you grow up?