Christmas in Italy
Here on Christmas Eve it was startlingly easy to step back in time, like Lucy walking through the wardrobe, I seemed to step into a place of magical forest folk from pre-Christian times, and then through another wardrobe, (in this case a dark narrow cobbled lane) into the world of medieval Christians.
I am speaking of the bonfire festival (Fiaccole della Notte di Natale) that happens in the Tuscan town of Abbadia San Salvatore on Christmas Eve.
(At the end of this post is a video to give you a good visual of the magical evening)
The construction of the these tall pyramid pyres begins in early December, with techniques that have been handed down for generations. Once they are lit, the effect is right out of the beacons of gondor, although better because it’s real life.
The night begins at 6:00 with the lighting of the pyre in front of the Town Hall. A band plays Christmas carols and from there, torches are carried to light the other pyres.
When my friend and I arrived and saw the first tall flaming piles of logs, we thought that was it—a handful of them. But in fact at least thirty are built. As I found my way to the historic center, the night because more and more magical.
My friend, feeling under the weather, stayed in a bar and I headed down a wide street in what was still the modern part of town, when to my left a narrow street beckoned. Through an arch at the end of it, I saw another burning pyramid of logs. Intrigued, I turned down the little via. Under the arch, I came to a small piazza where the fiery top of the pyramid was like wild tufted hair of a giant.
I found myself in an ancient labyrinth of cobbled streets, sloping up and down, leading to tiny piazze, where always another pyre sent orange embers into the velvet darkness.
I discovered that each bonfire had it’s own kiosk nearby, offering vin brulé, and biscotti and cookies. All that was asked in exchange was an offering. At each kiosk, for the drop of a coin into a box, I could enjoy warm mulled wine and snacks.
The nearby forests are full of chestnut trees, which have been a primary source of sustenance for the locals as far back as anyone can remember. In my video you’ll see me trying their traditional castagnaccio.
The town is on Monte Amiata, a volcanic cone that is second highest volcano in Italy and dominates the landscape of southern Tuscany. It was last active over 100,000 years ago. The hot thermal waters in the area, at Bagno Vignoni, Bagno San Filippo, and San Casciano dei Bagni are sourced from Monte Amiata.
Abbadia San Salvatore grew up around a monastery, one of oldest in Tuscany. (Abbadia means Abbey). In the Middle Ages, the villagers went to the monastery for Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. Apparently these bonfires were lit to show the way and keep people warm.
For me it showed the way of magical forest folk of bygone times, and their rituals tied to trees and fire.