Christmas in the Italian Community of Little Italy
The Christmas season was a time of great excitement and enjoyment within the Italian community. The celebrations would begin with the church’s annual Bazaar held on the first Friday and Saturday in December. All the school children were asked to bring something in for the Bazaar, such a sugar, tea, tins, cakes, and biscuits. The local restaurants and shop owners in the area would also be relentlessly pestered by the nuns to give donations or gifts for the prizes. An army of Italian ladies would work together all year, knitting, crocheting, and sewing, so they could organise a stall of their handmade goods. There was great excitement as the raffle tickets were drawn at the end of the Bazaar.
Every year St Peter’s School would hold a Christmas party for the children in the school hall. There was always a big roaring fire, and a huge Christmas tree topped with the most beautiful fairy. Each year the fairy would be given to one lucky child. I always longed to be the one that received it, and I hoped and prayed that one year it would be my turn. However it was never to be, but, we never went home empty handed as each child would be given a small present.
The Christmas Nativity Scene
At home Papà made us a splendid wooden crib for a nativity scene or tableau, which was called the presepe. He would patiently work for many hours creating the display with mountains made of cardboard and a night sky illuminated by tiny bulbs which ran off a battery. He would use soil for the ground, and flour for the snow. Then he would lovingly position the plaster figurines of Our Lady, Joseph, the shepherds, kings, angels, and animals to complete the scene.
In the Italian community, in the days leading up to Christmas, a small group of musicians would make their way through the streets playing their traditional instruments. In Italy, these musicians were normally shepherds who would come down from the mountainous region of Ciociaria where my Italian family came from.
They would play their hearts out producing their traditional festive music to herald the pending birth of the Christ child. They played instruments such as the ciaramella which is a wooden flute, and the zampogna which is a type of reed bag-pipe. The air sacks are traditionally made of goat or sheep skin, and the flutes are commonly carved of olive wood.
However, it was not until after Midnight Mass that we were allowed to lay the little baby Jesus in the manger. Unfortunately, one Christmas our cat got somewhat confused and did a “whoopsie” in the middle of the nativity scene. “Mamma Mia !!!” After this Papà decided perhaps it was not a good idea to use soil any more.
Christmas Music From Ciociaria – The Zampogna and Ciaramella
In the Italian community, in the days leading up to Christmas, a small group of musicians would make their way through the streets playing their traditional instruments. In Italy, these musicians were normally shepherds who would come down from the mountainous region of Ciociaria where my Italian family came from. They would play their hearts out producing their traditional festive music to herald the pending birth of the Christ child. They played instruments such as the ciaramella which is a wooden flute, and the zampogna which is a type of reed bag-pipe. The air sacks are traditionally made of goat or sheep skin, and the flutes are commonly carved of olive wood. The pipers would sport an unusual type of footware known as the ciocia, which is said to date back to Etruscan times. The footware consists of a rudimentary leather sole which towards the toe curves upwards. The shoe is held in place by long straps which are tightly bound around the foot and calf. This type of footware is part of the local costume of the people of Ciociaria who take their name from this unique type of footware. Mamma and Papa would fondly remember their beautiful home town of Atina that they had left so many years ago. Remembering, Mamma would become overcome by emotion and would quietly shed a few tears.
On Christmas Eve Mamma would get up very early and go shopping to carefully select the ingredients for our special Christmas Eve and Christmas Day meals. She scrimped and saved all year round to have enough to put something special on the table for us all. Mamma and my elder sister Rosie would spend much time preparing things in the kitchen.
Meanwhile the rest of us would get on with our last minute Christmas shopping. In those days it was the custom of the markets in Exmouth Street and Leather Lane to stay open quite late on Christmas Eve. All the stalls were illuminated with paraffin lights which cast a warming glow to the goods displayed. The stall holders would noisily compete with each other, shouting out their wares and bargains. The various stall holders would noisily compete with one another, shouting out their wares and bargains. There was always a feeling of great excitement and magic in the air. The toys stalls would be loaded up with clockwork wind-up train sets, cricket bats, footballs, guns, ranks tin soldiers, magic lanterns, dolls, prams, teddies, nurses outfits, board games, to name a few.
Our Catholic faith decreed that we must abstain from eating meat on a Friday, and this was also the case on Christmas Eve which was known to us Italians as La Vigilia. Finally, at six o’ clock we would all sit down at the candlelit table as a family, and the feast began. We would start with antipasti made up of provolone cheese, juicy black and green olives, artichokes, tomatoes, sweet roasted peppers, and crusty white bread. A huge bowl of spaghetti, bathed in olive oil and garlic was presented as the course. Following the pasta course, there were several fish dishes, such as capitone, slices of eel deep fried in oil, garlic and parsley, Fish baked in the oven with oil, vinegar, lemon and herbs; and bacalà that used salted cod that had been soaked overnight and then cooked in a rich white sauce flavoured with parsley.
The grown ups would drink a flask of Chianti wine with their meal, and sip Muscatel with the dessert of pizza-frit, typical home-made doughnuts or fritters liberally dusted with icing sugar, and the traditional Christmas cake, panettone, a light airy cake with candied peel inside. A selection of fresh fruits followed the meal. Oranges and mandarins were a special treat, as were exotic dried figs and sticky dates. Papà would roast chestnuts on the open fire or patiently crack nuts for us to nibble on.
On Christmas Eve we children were allowed to stay up very late. As I was born in London, I was brought up to understand many British Christmas customs as well as Italian ones. I believed in Father Christmas until I was 13 years old.
Like thousands of other British children I would expectantly hang up my Christmas stocking by the fireplace, hoping that he would come that night. For the rest of the evening, we would play a game such as tombola which is similar to bingo. Eventually, St. Peter’s bell tolled informing us that it was time to get ready to go to church.
Mamma, Rosie, and I went to Midnight Mass every year. It was a case of having to get there early as the church was always bursting at the seams. Each Christmas, Mr. Fackler, who was a German man who lived in our community, had lovingly put together the crib in the church. Just before 12 o’clock the three priests would slowly walk into the church, the priest in the centre carrying the statue of the baby Jesus. The priest would gently lay the baby in the manger, and then the Mass was offered. After the service the congregation were invited to come forward to the altar rail. The baby Jesus was presented to us so that we could kiss the feet of the new born child.
When we woke early the next morning on Christmas Day, il Giorno di Natale, at the foot of my bed I would find a bulging Christmas stocking.When I eagerly delved inside, I would discover a small apple, an orange or tangerine, some walnuts, a lolly-pop, a couple of pink and white sugar mice, and, if I was very lucky, a couple of cheap little toys and perhaps a sixpence or two.
Our presents were somewhat modest in those days as money was hard to come by however, we were quite happy and content. We would spend most of this day gorging ourselves. Mamma would normally prepare a large joint of beef slowly cooked in a rich tomato sugo which would be served with homemade tagliatelle. With crusts of bread we would mop up the delicious sauce and wipe our plates clean. Often our aunts, uncles and cousins would come to visit and share in the feasting. In the evening we began where we had left off, with more antipasti, cold chicken, and salad. Rosie would bake a special cake, and there would be sweets and torrone containing hazel nuts, and almonds, covered in wafers of rice paper. Once again the house would be full of laughter and frivolity. We children would enjoy the fun and games, especially playing tombola, and listening in on the conversations of the grown-ups.
I mentioned, we Italian children growing up in England were quite lucky, as we had the best of both worlds, following some of the traditional English customs as well as the Italian ones. On the feast of the Epiphany on the 6th of January, we celebrated La Befana. The story behind this involves an old witch-like character. It is said that one day the Three Wise Men, I Tre Magi, stopped at her house to ask the way to Bethlehem. They asked her to join them, but she told them she was too busy. Later some shepherds called at her home and asked her to accompany them to pay their respects to the newborn Son of God. Again, she declined the invitation. She later witnessed, it is said, a wondrous bright star in the night sky, and she decided that, perhaps, she should go to find the God Child after all. So, gathering up some toys, she tried to catch up with the Magi and shepherds.
In vain La Befana searched and searched to find them and the birthplace of Jesus. The legend says that each Christmas she still goes looking for baby Jesus, but never manages to find him. So, instead, the befana leaves gifts for all the good children, but only charcoal for the bad ones.
Photos have been accredited to the photographer / owner. Images marked * are in the Public Domain.
All other photos belong to my family or I have taken myself – © Louise Shapcott