Every few months or so I am awoken at dawn by huge booming cannons and barking dogs which signal that today is special; a day of celebration. There are festivals based on Saints, commemorations, historical remembrances, and even strikes. A day not designated exceptional is a sad day indeed. When my father visited me he always said, “So today is a holiday? It must be Tuesday!”
The basic form of celebrations has remained the same, although certain activities seem to have disappeared forever now. One of these was the “Palo della Cuccagna“* which gave the young bloods of the town a chance to show off their climbing prowess. A telephone-like pole was erected in the piazza with a bounty of cheeses, prosciutto, salami and such, tied to a bicycle wheel perched at the top. As if a smooth, 40-foot telephone pole might not be insurmountable enough, it was then greased with lard. Squads of four young men, jockeying impatiently for the challenge, armed themselves with a circular strip of fabric to wrap around themselves and the pole. They would scale it in sequence, each man on the bottom climbing up and over the next three. Slipping down the pole and each other, bruises and bumps and uncontrollable laughter would ensue. The first squad to reach the top would triumph and take home the prize. Hilarity for all was insured.
A traditional parade through the town center will take place during the festa. Fixtures in this parade, in the phalanx of the powerful, are the mayor, the town council, and the clergy. Having grown up with the Miss American pageants on TV, I always find it amusing when I see them all sporting wide banners from shoulder to hip, even though I know that this was the origin of the regalia used in those spectacles. Each V.I.P. is quite proud to wear his banner, and I expect to eventually see, in these days of hyperbole, more and more of these in each parade. Will there be a second and third brigade of silk sashes stating “schoolteacher,” “baker,” “or “dedicated housewife?” I imagine a bannered “group of Shame,” with “pedophile” or “litterer” scrawled on the sashes…
Picture Romeo and Juliet and their famous balcony. It used to be that there were small musical bands which could be hired by an “innamorato“** to woo his beloved. (One assumes that women were not traditionally the protagonists here but one could be wrong!) If the wedding date had been established, the young man would enlist the help of this band to serenade his future wife from the street below her balcony. It was a joyous occasion for the “vicini“*** when they heard a quavering voice in crescendo out in the street, and I imagine the bride-to-be and her family endured the event with a mix of emotional embarrassment and merriment as he sang his song to her. Too bad they didn’t have movie cameras to make videos back then; these scenes could have been the highlight of the wedding film!
Every town has its religious processions, pagan and Catholic, quirky or boringly traditional. These processions are still around, although they happen less often now. Every few months people will gather for the purpose of escorting some important relic or statue of a local saint, getting it “out for air” and at the same time reminding the people where their loyalties should lie. I will never forget my first experience with a procession, when, living along the main street, I heard a growing low buzz of human voices murmuring something, (a prayer?) over and over again, a shuffling swarm of sedated bees. People living along the route where the slowly trudging crowd will pass should prepare. Owners of houses will hang their nicest bed coverings from the railings, or adorn their clotheslines with ornate fabrics to honor the occasion. Some families possess a complicated banner with the local saint and symbols embroidered in traditional colors which makes its appearance often and proudly. Behold (and beware!) the balcony which is festooned with a line of grungy underwear instead of a nice bedspread, thus shirking its unwritten civic duty…
*”The Pole of Plenty”
** enamored one