Old traditions and ancient customs relive in Christmas here in Abruzzo, within the picturesque snow-capped mountains. The days before Christmas Eve, bagpipers come down from the Gran Sasso and the Majella mountains to warm up the villages with Christmas nenias. That’s the signal that the feast is approaching.
Photo courtesy of Antonio Bini
Typical of the Christmas period are also the living nativity scenes, which are still today set up in large part of Abruzzo. Particularly striking is the one inside the Grotte di Stiffe. The most important however is the crib of Rivisondoli, represented by the magnificent mountain scenery of this village, whose old town turns into a little Bethlehem till the Epiphany.
But the starring role of many Christmas traditions in Abruzzo is for the fire, because of its symbolic and practical value. In some areas we find the traditional rite of the yule log. When winter comes, families get their firewood and the “tecchie” is the biggest log that is put aside to be burned on Christmas night, staying in the fireplace until the New Year’s Eve. More wood is always added, slowly burning for twelve days – twelve like the months of the year and the Apostles, to bring about a new year full of wealth and abundance.
This ritual combines two propitiatory elements: the fire, that symbolizes sun and life, and the depleting log, the end of the passed year and of all its negativities. The embers of the log are considered sacred. On the first day of the new year they are lit up again in the fields and, once extinguished, scattered on the clumps as a propitiatory rite.
Another famous bonfire is the one in Nerito, in the province of Teramo: it is lit on December 24 and then fed every day by the citizens until the Epiphany.
In Santo Stefano di Sante Marie, on the night of December 24 there is a procession with the “ntosse” (torches) that ends in front of a huge bonfire called “La Capanna” (The Hut). According to the tradition, the direction of the smoke foresees abundance of chestnuts, if the smoke goes west; crops, if it goes south; grapes, if it goes east; or famine, if the smoke goes north.
Its origins date back to 1607, when on December 23 Paolo Tasso, Archbishop of Lanciano, began to go on a penitential pilgrimage to Iconicella church to commemorate the journey of Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem.
This devotional practice was accompanied by the ringing of the Squilla, the sound of church bells, and ended with the pastoral embrace with his faithful that extended feelings of solidarity and love even in the family.
Even today, towards dusk of December 23, the streets of the town are filled with people who comes and goes. At 18:00 the bell placed on the civic tower begins to sound giving the signal to all the other churches in the city that in an hour will begin to peal.
Since this moment people begin to warmly exchange Christmas wishes, on their way to the procession from Piazza del Plebiscito moving to the church on which Tasso went, where they hold a short Mass focused on the themes of solidarity and friendship.
All that is carried out in one hour because at 19:00 the people of Lanciano run to their home, where a family snug ritual awaits them.
From that moment, when they hear the chimes solemn of all the churches of the town (the Squilla) all family members gather in the home of the older relative.
The progenitor goes into a room to reflect trend of the year and is preparing spiritually to welcome the younger. The others stand in line from oldest to youngest, waiting for the bell rings to enter and kiss the hand to the elderly.
It’s just the little domestic procession that often marks the overcoming of small misunderstandings or the pacification of contrasts. it is useful to strengthen the bond of the family as the fulcrum of everyone’s life in the most magical time of the year.
Young people and the parents exhchange wishes, blessing and Christmas gifts.
In fact, while the rest of Italy is divided between exchange gifts on the night of 24 or on 25 morning, in Lanciano the gifts are exchanged on the day of the “Squilla”, compromising the key role of Santa Claus.
Afterwards the whole family gathered around a table spread for the party, though less lavish than expected for the eve.