HARK! THE HERALD ANGELS SING

Milan, 25 December 2017

I suppose it’s a sign of old age creeping up on me that I recall with ever greater fondness the memories of my youth, and in this festive season no more so than to Christmases past – here, to get us into the spirit of things, I throw in a picture of Scrooge being visited by the ghost of Christmas Past.

There is one Christmas in particular which comes back vividly to mind.  I must have been six years old, old enough to remember things forever more and young enough for incidents to be deeply impressed into my still malleable brain. I can still see in my mind’s eye the living room of our house in Eritrea – this was probably the last Christmas we spent there; we would be leaving it forever within the coming year. The furniture had been moved around to make room for a Christmas tree in the corner and a nativity scene along the edge of one of the walls. Following the cultural divide in our family, my British father was responsible for the tree while my French mother was responsible for the nativity scene, or crèche as she used to call it. The tree was a source of endless fascination to me, covered as it was with those glittering balls and other baubles. This picture of a Christmas tree from the 1950s captures well the glittering fantasy I beheld.

The balls in particular were a magnet for my little fingers, which was a problem because they were incredibly fragile in those days, made as they were of some very thin, very easily breakable material.  Alas, despite numerous parental warnings to keep out of the living room, I could not resist sneaking in and touching those beautiful balls, with a broken ball and a sore bottom being the inevitable result.

The crèche was an equal source of fascination: the little manger, the figurines of Mary and Joseph, the Mum and Dad to that little baby, Jesus, lying in the hay, the donkey and the cow, very much like the ones I saw when we went for drives in the countryside around the town, the shepherds hanging around the manger, who also looked pretty much like the shepherds I sometimes saw out in the countryside, the angel which hung by a thread over the manger, the three old fellows and a camel who, day by day, were brought closer and closer to the manger until they reached it some time after Christmas … all wonderful stuff. The crèche photographed here has the rough and ready look which ours surely had – in fact, it looks already to be one level above whatever it is that we prepared, although to my innocent eyes ours was a work of art.

I had little understanding and, frankly, zero interest in the theological profundities which were being exposed before us. What I loved were all those little figurines which we could move around! Our mother made it even more interesting by allowing us to add our own figurines to the mix. I don’t recall what I brought but I remember that my elder brother came with his toy cowboys and indians which he proceeded to hide behind the various trees and bushes dotting the papier-maché landscape.

In all my Christmases Past, I have had a particular fondness for these Christmas trappings, even though for reasons which are now not clear to me the crèche quite quickly dropped away in my parents’ Christmases, leaving only the tree and its baubles. When my Italian wife and I started having our own Christmases the decorated pine tree also dominated, although my wife remembered with great fondness the crèche, or presepe as she calls it, which her father would create when she was young. As she described it to me, it seemed very much like the crèche of my memory, although her father had inserted a pond into the landscape using a mirror and had rigged up a little light driven by a battery which would shine in the star above the manger. Since it was very much my father-in-law’s project, I suppose that after his early death my mother-in-law never had the heart to take the presepe out and set it up, even when our children were young and might have appreciated it. But we took them along to the local churches – every self-respecting Italian church will have a presepe set up in one of the side chapels at Christmas.

This year, as I did my annual trek to the attic to bring down our Christmas tree (made of plastic and reusable; I have to walk my talk, after all, and I can’t stand those piles of dead and dying pine trees on pavements after Christmas), I spied in the corner the box where my mother-in-law had stored the presepe materials, an old box which had once contained a humidifier and which still had her handwritten note on the top of it – a message from the past.

Since it was to be a family Christmas this year, with both our children joining us, I decided on the spur of the moment to set up the presepe. I brought the box down, took everything out, and carried out a general inspection. I decided to drop the pond; I didn’t approve of this novelty. The electrical system was kaput, so I ditched that. The main actors were all there – Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the manger, the ass and the ox, the shepherds and their sheep, the angel, the three Wise Men and their camel. But I was going to need some extra characters, to make up for the cowboys and indians which in my wiser old age I recognized as very incongruous – and anyway I had no cowboy and indian figurines at hand (I had some of my son’s Warhammer figurines in the back of a cupboard, but they would have been even more incongruous).

I decided to check out the greatest of all presepi in Italy, the ones made in Naples, which had brought the art of nativity scenes to heights of splendour. I mean, look at these two!


Now that’s what I call nativity scenes worthy of kings! (and queens) Making one was to be my KPI!

A little research informed me that there are a certain number of stock characters in Neapolitan nativity scenes. There is Benino, the sleeping shepherd, a reference to the line in the gospel that the shepherds were out in the fields at night (and therefore presumably snoozing). There is the wine seller, a reference to the Eucharist, but there is also Cicci Bacco, who is a reference to earlier pagan rites. There’s the Fisherman, symbolizing the fisher of souls. Then we have the two pals Unc’ Vicienzo and Unc’ Pascale, personifying Carnival and Death. There’s the Monk, who is meant to symbolize the union between the sacred and the profane in the Neapolitan nativity scene. There’s a Gypsy Girl, whose symbolism is uncertain but who is fun to have around. There’s Stefania, around whom there is an elaborate tale which I will not relate here. There’s the Prostitute, who is there to form a contrast with the purity of the Virgin and who normally is made to hang around outside the tavern – where else? Finally, there are the sellers in the market, one for each month of the year: butcher for January, seller of ricotta or cheese for February, seller of chickens and other birds March, seller of eggs April, a married couple holding a basket of cherries and fruit for May, baker for June, tomato seller July, watermelon seller August, fig seller September, wine seller October, chestnut seller November, fishmonger December.

A rapid comparison of what I had inherited from my in-laws told me that we had a lot of gaps. I had a Benino, a fisherman, a fishmonger, a young girl with a basket who could be one half of the married couple of May, a young girl who could be Stefania. And that was about it. I had a number of other figurines who it seems are not part of the stock players in a Neapolitan nativity scene. There were a couple of figurines of men playing various instruments, maybe referring to a tradition which was still alive – just – when I first came to Italy in the 1970s and which saw men appearing a little before Christmas playing the Lombard equivalent of bagpipes and inviting donations from passers-by for their efforts. There was also a neat little figurine of a fellow making polenta, no doubt part of an effort to defend the honour of northern Italian cuisine. My wife had come across by chance a little shop which sold a medley of figurines for nativity scenes, so we stocked up on a few of our missing characters. We also bought some sheets of coloured paper to use as backdrops, a bag of moss to sprinkle around as generic vegetation, and some little houses to create a nearby Bethlehem.  Then we got to work, my wife on the tree and me on the presepe alla napoletana. The result is not so bad, even if we say so ourselves.

But there is still much to do on the presepe! Luckily, I am a believer in the philosophy of continuous improvement. Next year, we will make our presepe somewhat better, the year after that better still, and on and on. If I’m lucky enough to celebrate many more Christmases Yet to Come we will finally end up with a magnificent Neapolitan-style presepe! – with some tweaks to distinguish ourselves from our southern cousins.

 

Merry Christmas! Joyeux Noël! Buon Natale!

____________________

Ghost of Christmas Past: http://www.wisegeek.com/who-is-the-ghost-of-christmas-past.htm
Christmas tree: https://it.pinterest.com/suehirtle1/1950s-christmas/?lp=true
Manger: http://www.unionesarda.it/articolo/sardegna_agenda/2017/11/29/a_villamar_un_corso_per_salvare_l_arte_del_presepe-122-671332.html
cowboys and indians: https://www.pinterest.co.uk/hajosc49/toy-land/
Parish church nativity scene: http://www.valcenoweb.it/2017/12/10/chiesa-parrocchiale-di-pione-bardi-inaugurato-il-presepio-venerdi-8-dicembre-2017/
the presepe box: my photo
Warhammer figurines: http://www.sickchirpse.com/peta-campaign-against-warhammer-fur/
Presepe napoletano: https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Presepe_napoletano
Presepe napoletano-2: http://www.oggiroma.it/eventi/mostre/il-presepe-religiosita-e-tradizione-popolare/27671/
The finished Christmas tree: my photo
The finished presepe: my photo
Ghirlandaio, Adoration of the Shepherds: https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adorazione_dei_pastori_(Ghirlandaio)

FRANKINCENSE AND MYRRH

Milan, 19 April 2017

Some forty years ago, when my wife and I were just beginning our journey together through life, I came down to Milan to spend Easter with her. At her mother’s suggestion, we went to a late-night service in the nearby basilica of Sant’Ambrogio.


It was either on Good Friday night or Easter Saturday night (my memory is clouded on this detail). Either way, at the end of the ceremony we all trooped out into the church’s atrium.

There, the presiding bishop put a light to a nice big bonfire which had been laid down earlier, and intoned loudly several times “Christus Resurrexit!”, “Christ is Resurrected!”. Now, since the resurrection of Christ is the central tenet of Christianity – without it, there would be no Christianity – you would think that the bishop would have shouted out this message with joy and gladness, or at least with a mild level of satisfaction. Not a bit of it! The fellow intoned it so mournfully as to make you wonder if he was sorry that the resurrection had ever taken place at all. Or maybe he enjoyed Lent a lot, fasting and praying and beating his breast, and was sorry that it was all over for another year. Or perhaps his hemorrhoids were acting up. Whatever the reason, the three of us agreed afterwards that the Bish had been a douche-bag, resurrection-wise.

Ever since that ceremony long ago, it has been in the back of my mind to attend it again, if only to see if succeeding bishops were a bit more joyful about it all. But as the Italians say, fra il dire e il fare c’è di mezzo il mare, between the saying and the doing lies the sea (it sounds better in Italian, if only because it rhymes). This year I thought the time was finally ripe, but alas! either the ceremony was on Good Friday night, when we had just arrived back from Los Angeles and were in no fit state to take part in anything, or some boringly politically correct entity like the City of Milan Health & Safety Services had decided in the intervening years that open bonfires in church atria were a no-no. Whatever it was, the bottom line was that there was no ceremony on Easter Saturday.

My wife decreed that nevertheless we should at least step into Sant’Ambrogio on Easter Sunday – something to do with a sort of atavistic belief that this would be a good day and place to receive a dose of sympathetic magic – and I grouchily agreed. So some time in the afternoon of Easter Sunday we made our way to the church, weaving our way through the few Milanese left in the city who were going for their Sunday stroll. We walked through the atrium where there should have been the bonfire, and we entered the church.

Ahh! My nose was immediately greeted by the smell of incense which had been burned in earlier ceremonies, and I was transported back to my youth. I saw the boy that was me inhaling that fragrance, pungent but with sweet overtones, watching the smoke curling towards the ceiling, and generally enjoying one of the few bright spots during those weekly masses which I had to endure.

I also thought that swinging that thingy (which I later learned was called a thurible) from which all that thick smoke poured out was pretty cool.

In my teenage years, when I was finally considered responsible enough, I got to serve in High Masses as an altar boy and to swing the thurible (the idea being to pass air over the incense to keep it burning). Luckily, I never got into trouble as Edward Norton did in the film “Keeping the Faith”. Readers may remember the scene where as a young priest just starting out he gets to swing the thurible, which he does with such enthusiasm that he sets his robes alight and has to jump into the font of holy water to douse the flames.

A quick search of my favourite source of information – Wikipedia – informs me that the incense used in the Roman Catholic rites of my youth contains a varying mix of frankincense, myrrh, gum benjamin, copal, and a few other odds and ends.

Frankincense and myrrh …

“We three kings of Orient are;
Bearing gifts we traverse afar,
Field and fountain, moor and mountain,
Following yonder star.

Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain
Gold I bring to crown Him again,
King forever, ceasing never,
Over us all to reign.

Frankincense to offer have I;
Incense owns a Deity nigh;
Prayer and praising, voices raising,
Worshiping God on high.

Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom;
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
Sealed in the stone cold tomb.

Glorious now behold Him arise;
King and God and sacrifice;
Alleluia!, Alleluia!,
Rings through the earth and skies.”
(I have cut the refrain)

That conjures up another image of my childhood, me in the school choir at primary school, doing the rounds of houses in the neighborhood, our choir master ringing the doorbell, and us launching into this and other Christmas carols when the occupants opened.

At the end of it all, we trooped over to the choir master’s house where his wife had prepared a buffet supper for us all, and where we got to taste just a little bit of the choir master’s home brew … Good times, those were.

Frankincense and myrrh …

The gifts, along with gold, that those three wise men with such mysterious names – Balthazar, Caspar, and Melchior – are proffering to the child Jesus in those countless paintings of the Adoration of the Magi produced in centuries past.

They are also players in the crèches which appear every year at Christmastime in Italian churches, ranging from the simple

to the very elaborate.

As young children we prepared one at home under the overall theological supervision of our mother – the latter meaning that we were allowed to place in the background other figurines in our possession, such as cowboys and Indians or various animals, but not in such quantities as to crowd out the essential Christian message. The three wise men on their camels were placed far away from the manger in which Baby Jesus lay, and then every day after Christmas we children brought them a little closer, to end up at the manger on 6 January, the Day of the Epiphany.

It all looked all so easy to us, but T.S. Eliot, in his poem The Journey of the Magi suggests otherwise.

‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

Frankincense and myrrh …

So desired throughout the Middle East and the broader Mediterranean world that its production centuries ago brought untold wealth to the Yemeni tribes which controlled the resin-bearing trees, allowing them to build cities like Shabwa, Marib, Baraqish.

They also brought untold riches to the tribes which controlled access to the incense route. This snaked its way up the western side of the Arabian peninsula, skirting the Empty Quarter and the Nafud desert, and culminating in Gaza. The wealth generated by the trade built cities like Avdat in the Negev

and helped build Petra in Jordan.

One day, if they stop hating and killing each other in this part of the world, my wife and I will go and visit the groves of frankincense trees.

And we will travel the incense route, preferably on a camel.

____________________

Sant’Ambrogio: http://www.itmap.it/milano/basilica-di-santambrogio/
Atrium of Sant’Ambrogio: http://muse-garret.cocolog-nifty.com/blog/2018/04/index.html
Incense smoke in church: https://www.pinterest.ph/pin/321233385899973661/
Swinging thurible: http://www.diariodejerez.es/semanasanta/Lunes-Santo-Jerez_3_575672440.html
Christmas carolling: https://www.gettyimages.de/video/choir?sort=mostpopular&offlinecontent=include&phrase=choir
Adoration of the Magi: http://en.artsdot.com/@@/8BWV5K-Rogier-Van-Der-Weyden-Adoration-of-the-Magi
Simple creche: https://ask.fm/matteotesselli99_
Elaborate creche: https://collinadeiciliegi.wordpress.com/2016/12/23/er-presepe/
Ruins of Baraqish: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baraqish
Ruins of Avdat: http://weekend.knack.be/lifestyle/reizen/israel-restaureert-antieke-stad-avdat/diaporama-normal-450517.html
Ruins of Petra: https://magdalatravel.com/detalles.php?id=82
Frankincense trees: http://holistictoolbox.co.nz/product/frankincense-boswellia-rivae-organic/
Camel riding: http://thesandysnowman.com/5-lessons-life-travel/