Christmas Traditions In Italy (1874) Through The Eyes Of An Englishman

From an issue of McBride’s Magazine, the travel memoirs of an Englishman in Rome. Please note: the author is clearly anti-Italian and I do not share those opinions 🙂


CHRISTMAS has never been among the nations of Latin stock what it is among those who have drawn their blood and their civilization from ancestors of the Teutonic race. With the former the great festival of the year is New Year’s Day, the “Jour de l’an,” the “Capo d’anno.” This latter is a pagan festival, the celebration of which has descended to their posterity in direct line from the former dwellers in the Eternal City. And the difference between the two races in this respect is one of the many curious indications of the inherent and essential paganism of this people ; an interesting subject, which may be worth discussing when so many other things are to be done —some say—but not at Christmas-time.

Nevertheless, pagan as the world around us may be, we nomads of the English-speaking peoples contrive to supply ourselves and friends with an abundant portion of very orthodox cakes and ale—to say nothing of other more serious orthodoxies—and manage to “look like the time,” not unsatisfactorily.

I partook of as irreproachable a plum-pudding, the production of a Roman cook, at the hospitable table of a Bostonian, as all Old England could produce, to say nothing of New ditto.

For we have long since taught these docile people what we want, and they perfectly well understand the advantages to be found in ministering to our special requirements. For whom is provided all that splendid show of roses of all hues, of carnations and lilies of the valley, which turns winter into spring at the well-known flowershop in the Via Condotti, near Spillmann’s, which no winter visitor to the Eternal City will have forgotten ?

Not for the descendants of the Quirites, l trow; neither for the “Senatus ” nor the ” Populus Romanus”; but for a jeunesse doiuce which hails from Fifth Avenue and Belgravia. And the proof of this is to be seen in the brilliant show of holly, gay with abundance of red berries, which I duly makes its appearance there at Christmas-time. Nor is a supply of mistletoe sufficient for the necessities of the rising generation wanting.

By the by, talking of mistletoe, I hope I may be the first to send across the ferry that separates us the following last specimen of an English competitive examination. Historical Examiner: “And now, sir, can you tell me where it was that the Merovingian king Clovis embraced Christianity ?” Bright Young Candidate, short and sharp : “Under the mistletoe bough, sir!”

Carnival is so constantly spoken of by English and Americans — and indeed sometimes by Italians also—as consisting of what should be said to be the last eight or ten days of Carnival, that it is probable that many persons are not aware that properly, and according to the calendar, Carnival begins with the first day of January, continuing, as all the world knows, till the beginning of Lent, forty days before Easter, compels all good Catholics to say “good-bye to meat” till the eve of Easter Sunday puts an end to the forty days’ fast. Those last days which foreigners usually speak of as ” the Carnival” are merely the culminating point and most furious access of the Carnival delirium.

The Roman dealers in creature comforts, who are now decorating their shops, understand perfectly well that the festive season, the time for good eating and drinking, is close at hand. Perhaps the shops which most distinguish themselves in this way at Rome are the pizzicagnoli. We have no accurate translation for the word. “Cheesemonger” won’t do, for the pizzicagnolo deals in many things that a cheesemonger does not concern himself with.

Perhaps the main staple of the pizzicagnolo’s trade consists of various preparations of the divers feet of Paddy’s “true gentleman,” the pig; yet he is not a “pork-butcher,” for he does not deal in uncured pork. Hams, “sides,” “chops,” “chines,” sausages in countless forms and kinds—these are articles that at this season of the year fill the shops in question to overflowing. Now, however much all these good things may be “joys for ever,” one would hardly expect them to turn out to be “things of beauty.” But such they almost become in the hands of a Roman pizzicagnolo.

These shops are, at all events, really things to be seen at this season of the year. Evergreens, not holly, as with us, but mainly bay, Apollo’s leaf (for the “laurel,” as we generally translate the Italian word, which, however, given with full botanical correctness, is the Laurus nobilis, is the bay Apollo’s distinctive leaf is used, and with undeniably good effect, to garland sausages, huge brawn and chines of bacon !

The aid of light is largely called in to help the show. Innumerable wax candles cast golden lights and quaint shadows on substances and surfaces of varied hues, which make up a really not inharmonious mass of coloring.

Towering piles of huge Parmesan cheeses emulate pillars at the entrance to this temple to Pig glorified. And the slenderer shafts which architecturally flank them are constructed of the smaller but not less precious rounds of Sfracchino di Gorgonzola from the flat and fat alluvial plains around Lodi in the valley of the Po. This is the cheese— less generally known on the northern side of the Alps than the Parmesan, because it is not so good a traveler—of which it is related that George IV., when prince regent—that “first gentleman in Europe,” on which courtier’s phrase America may well retort, ” But not, thank Heaven! on our side of the water “— this first gentleman, when he was looking for evidence to enable him to get rid of his wife, said to an emissary about to start for Italy in quest of such, “At all events, if you bring me back no evidence, you can bring me a Stracchino cheese !” The origin of the name is a singular one. Stracchino is the diminutive from siracco, tired. And the name was given to the product because it is made from the milk of cows which have labored beneath the yoke, and are therefore tired. What influence this may have on the cheese I leave to dairy-farmers to decide and explain.

But to return to our tour among the Christmas-shops of the Roman pizzicagnoli. It may be mentioned that not the least effective part of the tout ensemble consists of enormous circular masses of Milan butter, perhaps the finest in Europe, which now reaches Rome in perfect condition, fantastically and really very tastefully ornamented by arabesques worked in bay leaves, applied to the straw-colored surface of them.

Lastly, and imparting a very marked and decided couleur locale to the scene, may be observed, high up in the most conspicuous centre of the back wall of the shop, amid festoons of sausages and huge circular slabs of porphyry-colored “mortadella” (a peculiar kind of colossal sausage as large as a man’s thigh), a gorgeously framed picture of the Madonna and Child, surrounded by a galaxy of wax lights. For your Roman tradesman is a religious man, and, though by no means permitting the Madonna to interfere in any way with the conduct of his business, or indeed with any other department of his life, he likes to proclaim himself a dutiful son of Mother Church, and has a notion that the honor thus paid to the Virgin will be likely to induce Heaven to “bless his store.” The Raman tradesman, I have said. For his fellow from the north of Italy has to a much greater degree emancipated himself from such notions and usages. And accordingly your Milanese or Turinese who moved to Rome when it became the capital of Italy is a much more nineteenth-century sort of personage than the genuine old Roman, the product of many a generation that has lived under papal rule. The consequence is, that one of the phenomena observable in the Roman world at present is the gradual extinction of the Roman citizens—gradual, but quite sufficiently rapid to be perceptible to the resident of only a few years. They are being squeezed out, to their own infinite surprise and disgust. The new men from the north of Italy come with better and more modern business habits, with more energy, more industry, more capital, more intelligence, more activity. The old Roman can’t keep up with them, and is far too proud to permit himself to imagine that his want of success is due to any shortcoming of his own, or that any change in his time-honored habits can be desirable. So he gradually goes to the wall. In a short time ” his place will know him no more,” and Rome will be inhabited by a more progressive race.

One of the Christmas specialties to which the American and English visitors used to look forward at Rome was the church music. But this, alas! is among the things that were and are not. The appointed church services indeed are performed somehow — those at St. Peter’s, however, greatly curtailed in consequence of the pope’s sulky determination to consider himself and behave himself as a state prisoner — but the singing is not what it was. It used to be a very favorite expedition to attend the midnight mass on Christmas Eve in the great church of Santa Maria Magpore. “All Rome”—all English and American Rome—used to be there. It was not perhaps a very edifying assembly. The enormous aisles, stretching away into dim distance as they recede from the galaxy of light upon and around the altar, are all but entirely dark, and the huge columns, casting their black masses of shadow, supplied abundant “cover” to those who brought with them some voice better worth listening to than any in the choir. But the singing was really worth hearing. It is so no longer.

Gay young heretics may still find the midnight mass an “awfully jolly lounge,” but to the real lover of music the attraction has vanished. The same thing, almost, may be said of the choir of the canons’ chapel in St. Peter’s; and quite of the nuns of St. Trinita di Monte, whose sweet singing of vespers used to attract “all Rome.” Either their good voices have all become old, and they have been recruited by no fresh ones, or they no longer care to make music for the delight of heretic ears. It is curious to note that the same thing may be remarked of all the other cities of Italy. If Italy is “the land of song,” it is certainly not the land of sacred song. The thing has perished. Evidently, nobody cares for it, and Italians of real musical taste and knowledge speak of the strains of Basili or Palestrina as detestable rubbish ! The probability is, that the true explanation of the phenomenon lies in the hatred and disgust for the Church and its services, and all belonging to it, that the Italians have been educated into by their past experiences.

There is, however, one place in Rome where good church music may yet be heard, and that is in the noble suite of rooms which Mr. Hooker, the American banker, occupies in the Buonaparte palace in the Piazza di Venezia, on the eve of Christmas Day. It has for many years been the hospitable and pleasant custom of Mr. Hooker to assemble really almost the whole of the American and English visitors in his house to hear the old Christmas services of Palestrina, Gulielmi, Fioravanti and other great composers of the best period of Italian church music, given by the best voices Rome can supply. Several hundreds of persons were assembled to partake of this treat on the night of December 24; and a very great treat it was. It would, indeed, be a very lame account of a Roman Christmas that should leave out Mr. Hooker’s annual gathering.

T. Adolphus Trollope.

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