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.