From My Tuscan Window

Chapter 72
Christmas in Gioviano
In early December, the Christmas season begins in Gioviano as people start their preparations for this festive season. December 6, the feast day of Saint Nicholas, usually marks the official beginning.

Bright lights, colorful holiday markets, and frantic activity herald the advent of Christmas in the Serchio Valley. As the winter solstice approaches, festive lights help to illuminate villages on the shortest day of the year. On Christmas Eve, the people of each town in the valley build large bonfires on the hillsides. In ancient times, the Roman Saturnalia was celebrated at the solstice after which the amount of daylight gradually began to increase. Early Christians took over the Roman festival to celebrate the coming of Jesus, whom they considered to be the light of the world. The Giovianini love flowers at any time of year, so they are quick to buy their festive flowers early in the Christmas season when the selection is still good. Poinsettias, called “Stelle di Natale”, or “Stars of Christmas,” begin to appear throughout Tuscan flower markets in December. Flowering cyclamen plants are also favorites and are often given as gifts when visiting friends over the holidays. Italians purchase and mail colorful Christmas cards early in the season for the cards to arrive at their destinations on time. Messages in these cards express “saluti”--fond remembrances and affection to friends and family.

Christmas traditions tend to overlap throughout the world, and many elements of the Italian Christmas are similar to our own in the United States. Yet others are strictly Italian. Italy has the distinction of introducing the first nativity scene, or presepe which is now popular throughout the world. This is the most important of all Christmas decorations, and in Gioviano one is placed at the entrance to the village. Every home has its own presepe which is usually set up by the Christmas tree.

Factories in Italy have worked all year to create beautiful presepe figures and a wonderful selection may be found in the Christmas markets. Many of the Giovianini have been employed to paint by hand the characters of the nativity scenes. Perhaps the finest figures are created at the Fontanini factory which is located in Chifenti, a short distance from Gioviano.

Gioviano claims the distinction of producing a Presepe Vivente, a living nativity scene, with townsfolk portraying the characters. The entire village is transformed back into ancient times, supposedly to Bethlehem with the Holy Family the center of the occasion. The youngest baby in Gioviano plays the Christ Child, and the local priest Francesco plays the part of Joseph. The Giovianini have worked many long hours to transform their village with characters raising sheep and working on various occupations of the day. These fascinating activities are displayed in the streets and in people’s cantinas—any place that looks authentically old. You can imagine--the pigpen at Palazzo Margherita becomes one of the stage sets as well as the old unrestored kitchen in the Emilio wing. In fact, most of the Giovianini are involved in one way or another, craft making, or food making, and the effect is incredible. People come from all around to witness this remarkable event. On Christmas Eve, Gioviano families indulge in sumptuous dinners before going to midnight Mass. After the church service, relatives and friends play games, roast chestmuts, tell stories and reminisce about old times.

One of the worldwide traditions that has taken root in Gioviano is the bringing of gifts by Saint Nicholas or Babbo Natale (Father Christmas) on December 25. He has almost replaced the Italian tradition of the Befana, a kind old woman who brings gifts to children on Epiphany Eve (January 5). According to legend, the Three Wise Men stopped at the old woman’s cottage on the way to Bethlehem to visit the Christ Child. They asked her to join them, but she said she was too busy and so refused. Later, the Befana reconsidered and rushed after them, carrying gifts for Baby Jesus. However, without the guidance of the Wise Men, she could not find her way. Unable to give her gifts to the Christ Child, she distributes them to other children In Gioviano, a Befana character accompanied by other townspeople goes door to door on Epiphany singing and requesting donations for charity. Christmas in Gioviano is a wonderful time of year for children and adults alike.

Revised March 3, 2008
Copyright 2005-2006 George H. Russell
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