December 3, 2013

Cracotan Christmas Customs

Crachese Presepio: The presepio of Craco Society members, Frank and Anna Rinaldi is shown above. The word presepio (Nativity Scene) comes from Latin and today it means manger or crib. The presepio is arranged according to the artistic sense of the builder and was prepared for Christmas but removed by the 2nd February. In Craco, a presepio was set up in the Church of San Nicola Vescovo (Chiesa Madre). A small light over the presepio was attached to a coin box where children would drop a coin to illuminate the scene with the proceeds helping to support the church. Photo courtesy of the Craco Society
Reprinted from the December 2013 Craco Society Bulletin

Christmas traditions of Craco Vecchio were markedly different from those celebrated in America when the immigrants arrived.

Although San Nicola, the town’s patron saint was not important to the Cracotan Christmas tradition he was recognized worldwide as Santa Claus and became important in North American Christmas celebrations.

December, the last month of the calendar year was more important to the people of Craco for their agricultural needs in addition to the events on the clerical calendar. 

As part of the agricultural calendar the picking of olives and bring-ing them to the frantoio (press) to make olive oil occurred this month. It was customary to sample the new olive oil by toasting bread at the frantoio and drizzling the first few drops of the virgin olive oil on the toasted bread. 

The religious side of life in town had many dates, celebrations and traditions that occurred in December. This included, celebration of the “Immacolata” (the feast of the Immaculate Conception), then on the following week, the celebration of the feast of Santa Lucia. 

This event marked not only the saint's day but also a change in the season which was important to farming communities. This feast was celebrated by soaking ceci and grain then cooking it for several hours and offering it to the poor. The “porridge” was also eaten for breakfast on Santa Lucia’s feast day. 

People also began making nativity scenes with handmade clay figures, and moss gathered from the fields. These would be used to create a “presepio” a Nativity Scene.
Tombola Set: In Italy, tombola is a very common family game played at Christmas. It is similar to bingo. Playing tombola is a holiday must, with all the relatives united around grandparents and small children shouting when they win a prize (adults usually don't call a prize if there are children around, to let them win). Photo courtesy of the Craco Society
During the week before Christmas, the kitchens got busy making seasonal specialties such as “pettole” (fried dough), “panzerotti” (smaller versions of calzones filled with a sweet chestnut or ceci filling) and “cartellate”, (crisp pinwheel pastries sometimes called the "dahlias of San Nicola" because of their color and shape and their association with the nuns of the hospice for pilgrims of Saint Nicholas of Bari.

On Christmas Eve, families gathered to eat baccala (dried salted cod) and other seafood, then attend midnight Mass at the Church of San Nicola (La Chiesa Madre). 

On Christmas Day families gathered together to enjoy the day including the tradition of playing Tombola using orange peels as Tombola markers. 

For those who had immigrated to America they found a whole new way to celebrate the Christmas season. 

Although clerical events would remain available to them the celebrations were not public events celebrated town wide. 

Certainly, Cracotan families maintained traditional gatherings, shared customs and foods. But these were modified over time as assimilation occurred. 

The Christmas tree became a standard, the presepio was replaced by manger scenes, and presents were exchanged earlier. In Italy gifts are exchanged on January 6 with the “La Befana” bringing gifts to good children. She was replaced by Santa Claus in America but this was probably appreciated by the old Cracotans since San Nicola had always been their patron. 


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