And we finally arrive to the east border, in Friuli Venezia Giulia! Where Christmas traditions and stories find their origin long time ago.
Friuli Venezia Giulia is Italy’s most North-Eastern region. It borders Austria to the north and Slovenia to the east. While to the south it faces the Adriatic Sea. The major transport routes between the east and west of southern Europe pass through this region. And that’s why Friuli Venezia Giulia’s history is a mix of cultures and traditions.
Friuli Venezia Giulia’s Christmas traditions come from cultural mosaic. From December to January, from the sea to the mountains, a Central European mixture of ancient legends and folklore live on the streets and the most picturesque corners.
The Christmas spirit is more intense in the small towns “guarded” by the Eastern Alps. The rural sacredness and simplicity reign in a frame of snow and mountains.
On Christmas Eve, if a girl looks in the mirror with her hair down at midnight, she will see the image of the predestined groom.
Once in Friuli in fact the Christmas traditions were linked to magical beliefs. And still today you can feel the atmosphere.
A very common practice in the region is the setting on fire of the Nadalin (also called “zòc”) on the night of Christmas Eve. It has pagan origins but in Christian times has taken on a symbolic meaning. The Nadalin is a big log generally beech, oak or mulberry tree that is lit in the fireplace. According to the tradition, the Nadalin had to remain lighted on until the New Year, but if you could keep it burning until Epiphany, this would bring good fortune to the whole house. Once the festivity ended the coals of “zòc” were carefully preserved and used to light the fire when threatened by bad weather.
Together with the splinters of the Yule log, blessed olive tree leaves and some juniper branches were also burned deeming this practice a powerful talisman against witchcrafts and, generally, against bad luck.
In some areas of Friuli on Christmas Eve small processions of kids carry a star (symbol of the Nativity) hoisted on a stick. They go from house to house singing carols and receiving fruits or sweets in exchange.
Instead the most fascinating show, still alive today and heartfelt, is the Pignarûl or bonfires. One of the oldest traditions of Friuli, whose origins are lost in the dawn of time. The direction taken by the smoke and sparks is interpreted: whether the new year will be auspicious or inauspicious. And for this reason the pyre is lit by a child, as a symbol of innocence. On the evening of the 6th of January, Friuli Venezia Giulia lights of hundreds of bonfires.
Tarcento – Palio of Pignarulars
With Pignarûl sometime, another ancient ritual is carried on: the Cìdulìs. The ceremony, imbued with charm and mystery, consists in launching incandescent small wooden wheels from the hill. In throwing them people express good wishes for the community.
Two other commemorations, during which sacred and profane are mixed together, celebrate the Epiphany.
In Cividale there is the Messa dello Spadone after a historical costume parade of more than 250 participants. The commemoration culminates with the liturgical ceremony, during which the big sword belonged to the Patriarca Marquardo of Randeck appears. Deacon uses it at different times, raising it and cleaving the air in greeting or blessing.
In Gemona, instead, on the same 6th of January takes place the Messa del Tallero. During the church service the Civil Community, represented by the Mayor, offers to the Church, in the hands of the Archpriest, a silver dollar, as a sign of submission of the temporal power to the spiritual. The ceremony is rich in ritual gestures and it hasn’t changed for centuries.
Duomo of Gemona
And if you find yourself in Friuli Venezia Giulia during this time, a visit to the village of Poffabro is worth. Poffabro is one of the most beautiful villages in Italy nestled in the Friulian Dolomites. During the Christmas season dozens of nativity scenes transform this village into a fairy open-air museum. The cribs come in all types and sizes, from the traditional ones in porcelain, plaster and wood to those made of materials with innovative and imaginative techniques: glass, unstructured fabrics, stubble, carved soaps, wrought copper and wool. They emerge unexpected from the balconies, on the window sills, in the most secret corners of the seventeenth-century courtyards or where time has created a tiny crevice in a low wall.
Remaining in the Friulian Dolomites a visit has to be made to the town of Andreis. Here more than sixty Christmas trees are decorated with original handicrafts. The decorations are made by small groups of locals, who work together all year passing down knowledge and skills.
The Christmas markets of Friuli Venezia Giulia recall Austrian and German atmospheres. Local handicrafts, spices, mulled wine, music and lights characterize them. Among the town markets of Friuli Venezia Giulia, the oldest is the Saint Nicholas Fair in Trieste. But nice are also those of Pordenone and Udine. From Sauris it is impossible not to go home with a wooden decor or traditional scarpets, the velvet slippers with soles made from bicycle tires. And if the temperature drops, you must go to Aquileia Unesco World Site Heritage. Sipping a good local wine doc, walking between music and lights in search of gifts to put under the tree.
Basilica in Aquileia
Now it is time to leave! Tomorrow there will be many more stories and places to tell!