Friday, December 15, 2006

Christmas in Italy

Another timely e-mail from our on-line friend, Catherine Zeppa Di Matteo, from Italy ... enjoy!
God's grace & Mary's prayers,

Dear Mr. O'Toole,

Hi there. Here is the story again, and with my original note giving some background information.

My note:

Over the centuries Naples became a big producer of hand-crafted manger-scenes--and this being a very long tradition, things developed to such a point that the number of figurines in a traditional Neapolitan manger-scene multiplied prodigiously and now there are hundreds of them, but they are characters who have little or nothing to do with the actual people in the Gospel story as we know it. Neapolitans being very big-hearted people, I guess their thinking is that everyone should be in the manger-scene, everyone should have the chance to be there for the momentous birth of the Christ Child in the Grotto. By the way, the tradition here is that Jesus was born in a grotto and not in a barn-like structure. And in fact, I have heard tell from people who have visited Bethlehem and the place of Jesus’ birth, that it is indeed more grotto than barn.

And then the little Grotto in Bethlehem (of the Neapolitan manger-scenes) gets transformed into a real “happening” place in the middle of a busy Italian piazza. So the Grotto is no longer in the lonely and ‘silent night’ outskirts of Bethlehem but right in the middle of vegetable markets, butcher’s shops, ‘ristoranti’ and ‘caff├Ęs’ and whatever else. In some of the flashier manger-scenes there are whole squads of soccer players (the year’s champions) there are others full of celebrities (Rambo...Sharon Stone... E.T....) others get peopled with political figures (Castro, Bush, Putin, Prodi, the Pope, Sadam Hussein, Osama Bin Laden). In the ‘90’s Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky were popular favorites (afterall, this mighty little Savior came for them).

Well, those are rather special kinds of manger-scenes, while the one described below is the more traditional kind of Neapolitan manger experience.

The following is a translation of the short-story IL SINGOLARE CASO
DEL PRESEPE CHE SI FA DA SOLO by Giovanni Ruggiero, which appeared in the newspaper L’AVVENIRE in December, 2003.

And it begins thus:

“In Naples, the manger-scenes are set-up on the feast of the Immaculate Conception [Dec. 8th] and every year it is always set out in a new way --it is never the same as the year before--either because new figurines are introduced or others get broken and are no longer present . . .”


Angelo took down the big card-board box and began carefully removing the newspaper-wrapped figurines one by one. He did this slowly so as not to break the fragile arms and legs. Then he lined them up in the piazza in front of the Grotto like the ranks of a peaceful, multicolor army. There were the shepherds with their sheep; and then there were the fruit and vegetable vendors, and the fish-mongers, the butchers and the sellers of chestnuts, the olive oil merchants and cafe waiters, and the cafe owner too. What a rabble.

Over there, below the pasture where the sheep would be, he tastefully placed the miniature crates full of fruit and the crates of silvery fish and those of vegetables and then he draped strings of sausages and hung side-quarters of beef and displayed pig’s heads and flasks of wine, and here and there he placed festoons of lemons and garlands of tomatoes.

When he had finished unwrapping the last of the figurines, Angelo assigned a place to each one in that Bethlehem made of cork and card-board. Every now and again he stepped back to check the effect. But he had to hurry now before they started coming to life and moving around. “Good heavens,” he thought, “if I don’t get them settled quickly there’ll be all sorts of heated discussions.” And there came to mind the Three Kings. They would be the first to start complaining, as always. And actually, there were six of them and not three: two Melchiorres, two Gaspares and two Baldassares; one set of Kings was on camel, the other was on foot.

The shepherds were now rousing from their year-long sleep...and the Kings, right on cue, were beginning to grumble; they were demanding to be put immediately in front of the Grotto where the oxen and the ass were already installed and warming the place up [note-in Italy the Three Kings are placed in the manger-scene only on Epiphany--Jan.6 ]; Joseph and Mary were also there, sweetly admiring an as yet empty manger.

“Six Kings in front of the Grotto is simply unheard of,”explained Angelo.

“Well, in fact, the problem is that there are six of us,” protested the two Melchiorres.

“Listen, this is the way it’s always been done--you three on camel, up on the mountain. . .”

“And to do what, pray tell?

“Nothing. You are supposed to be representing Three Kings Coming from the Orient, then on Epiphany you other three will come in front of the Grotto to offer your gifts to the the Christ Child. It’s just incredible that I have to repeat the same thing every year!” exclaimed Angelo impatiently. The Three Kings who were camel-less returned very dejectedly to the card-board box with their heads hanging low, and from the direction of the cafe a voice was heard singing, “Weepy Kings of Orient are. . .” . Angelo looked over in the direction of the cafe and glared severely at the owner of the voice and then at the cafe owner too, who’d had the gall to place the cafe right next to the Grotto, and had it already open for business.

Then the cripples came hobbling forward, that is, all the derelict figurines which over the course of the years had lost an arm, a hand, a leg... “Angelo,” they cried, “don’t stick us way off somewhere just because we’re crippled or amputees. We want to see the Christ Child too, and besides, didn’t you say that he’s the Son of God and that he can make the lame walk and give sight to the blind ?”

This was a grave matter and Angelo thought about it for a moment. Then he took a robust plaster hedge and placed it in front of the Grotto so that the limbless and limping could lean comfortably on it while admiring the light coming from the Grotto. And they were satisfied.

“Good!” said Angelo, “it’s finished. The manger-scene is ready.” And he was just about to take his place when one of the shepherds called to him, “Angelo, wait a minute, Benino’s not here!” The shepherd boy was missing and the sheep, without their little guardian, had wandered off as far as Herod’s castle, putting their lives at risk.

“He must still be asleep in the box”, said a fishmonger.

“That boy doesn’t do anything but sleep,” grumbled one of the merchants,“and as big as he is . . . he’d better get a move on or he’s going to lose every one of those sheep.”

And in fact Benino was still in the box wrapped snugly in a piece of last year’s newspaper and was sleeping blissfully. Hearing that he was being called, he got up; Angelo pointed to the spot where he was supposed to be. “Pardon me” said the boy taking his place; then he spread a blanket on the ground and went back to sleep.

Everyone was now present. Angelo pinched his cheeks to make them seem a little redder, then he opened his wings and flew up over the top of the Grotto, and there in the sky he pulled out a light blue banner from under his robes and un-furled it. In gold letters was written GLORIA IN EXCELSIS DEO.

I wish you and your family a very blessed Christmas,
Catherine Zeppa Di Matteo

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