In some parts of Italy the feast of San Nicola, patron saint of Bari, ushers in the Christmas season with the giving of gifts on the eve or morning of December 6, his onomastico (name day). Although many stories of San Nicola’ s life may be mythical, he did inspire the figure of a beloved old man—whether he’s known as Babbo Natale (Father Christmas) or Santa Claus—who gives out presents in December.
There is an Italian name — la Festa del Ringraziamento — but no cultural equivalent for the day when the Pilgrim fathers (padri pellegrini) and the American native people came together to celebrate the harvest in the New World. Although turkey (tacchino) and pumpkin (zucca) are available, Italians don’t prepare them in the traditional ways that Americans do on Thanksgiving — nor do they restrict their giving of thanks to a single feast.
Several years ago I came across this clever and wise anecdote from il Gruppo Castelvetrano in Trapani, Sicily, and translated it into English. I’m sharing it again as we look toward Thanksgiving and the holiday season.
Rome, the dome-capped city of gushing fountains, monumental staircases and sunlit piazzas, owes much of its seductive beauty to Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598–1680. Over his long career Bernini emerged as the Michelangelo of his time, a master sculptor, architect, painter, city planner, draftsman, engraver and scenographer.
Long ago on a cold and rainy November 11, a former Roman soldier named Martino came across an old man stumbling and shivering on the road. Although he wanted to help, Martino had no money or blanket to offer. And so he took out his sword, slashed his cloak and gave half to the man. As Martino rode off with a joyful heart, the sun appeared through a break in the clouds, and the day grew warmer. That night Jesus appeared in Martin’s dream with half of the cloak in his hand and thanked him for his compassion. The warm days of early November –- known as Indian summer in the United States –- are called “l’estate di San Martino” (the summer of St. Martin) in Italy.
Italy’s cimiteri (cemeteries) are coming alive this week as families prepare for November 2 (All Souls’ Day), which the Catholic church dedicates alla commemorazione dei defunti (to the commemoration of the deceased). To celebrate Il giorno dei morti (the Day of the Dead), many Italians travel to their home towns to place fiori, soprattutto crisantemi, e lumini (flowers, especially crysanthemums, and small lights) on the graves of departed relatives.