The Babe of Bethlehem: A Sicilian Christmas Tradition

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As we approach Advent and the Christmas season, many Americans begin their annual ritual of dragging out boxes of holiday decorations. One cannot experience this customary process without recalling memories of past festivities with family and friends.

My family follows typical American Christmas traditions with a twist of Italian/Sicilian customs. The focus is food, faith, and la famiglia – the family! Growing up, the heart of our home was my paternal grandmother. The daughter of Sicilian immigrants, my grandmother was only seven when her father died tragically in a factory fire. She was forced to grow up quickly and take on responsibility at a young age because her mother did not speak English. Despite disappointments and heartaches throughout her life, she maintained a great sense of humor and strong faith in God. She instilled in her loved ones the belief that far more valuable than the gifts we give or receive, the food we eat, or the extravagant adornments, Christmas is about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ – fully God and fully man – bringing joy, hope and love to the world.

One of my most cherished memories of Christmastime is watching my grandmother lovingly displaying a beautiful, but well-worn, nativity crib/crèche. The porcelain figurines of Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, the three wise men, and the shepherds wore clothes made of brightly colored silk-like material. As a child I was allowed to play with them, but carefully supervised. Little did I understand then the significance of the crèche to our Christian faith and especially the great importance the nativity crib represented to our Sicilian culture.

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The history of the nativity crib dates back to Italy in 1223 with St. Francis of Assisi. To commemorate the birth of Christ, he created a living reenactment of the manger scene, complete with hay and oxen. St. Francis was so deeply moved by the scene he could barely utter a word. He could only say ‘the Babe of Bethlehem’. The nativity crib, or in Italian presepio or presepe, as it is known today, with three-dimensional statues using various materials such as wood, gold, silver, ivory and coral, is believed to have started in Sicily in the fifteenth century; probably because of their puppet craftsmanship. The Jesuits saw the nativity crib as an excellent teaching visual and the spread of Christianity grew throughout Europe. By the seventeenth century the tradition expanded to England. However, the Puritans in America banned the nativity crib, citing it as idolatry. Fortunately, as Europeans emigrated to America in the 1800’s and early 1900’s, they brought their Christmas traditions and customs with them, including the nativity crib and the Christmas tree. Now Americans of many faiths enjoy the season with these treasured traditions.

My grandmother died in 1977 and her cherished nativity crib has not been seen for years, but the life-giving message of the nativity crib still resonates. Often I reminisce about those simpler Christmas celebrations, when the emphasis of the season was on Christ who came to save us and less on Santa. This holy season, let’s rekindle in our hearts a desire to follow the star that leads to Jesus, the Babe of Bethlehem, who offers us His gifts of love, joy, and hope.

Buon Natale and a holy Christmas season.

(image credits: Pixabay.com)

SICILY IS DELICIOUSLY AMAZING IN ANY SEASON

My love for Sicily grows with each visit!

Sicily is filled with cultural enchantment, deep historic origins and offers a wide array of delicious produce and cuisine. My first visit was in the fall of 2014. I returned in the spring of 2015 and recently visited this summer. No matter what time of year you go, Sicily is paradise on earth!

In early August, I spent a delightful afternoon with my Sicilian cousins who took me to Cefalù; it’s an ancient city along the northern coastline that was conquered by the Normans in 1063. Folklore states the King of Sicily, Roger II, made a vow to Jesus that if he escaped a storm at sea he would build a church to him. The King was miraculously spared so in 1131 he requested a Cathedral be erected, designed in Norman architecture. Despite numerous invasions throughout the centuries, the Cathedral of Cefalù is well preserved and its impressive towers still dominate the harbor. The interior of the Cathedral was restored in 1559. Though deterioration is evident, behind the high alter is a magnificent Byzantine mosaic of Jesus that is both breathtaking and humbling. The mosaic is comparable in design to the spectacular Byzantine mosaic of Jesus at the Cathedral of Monreale.

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Something I did not expect to see in the city center of Cefalù and hidden under the Martino Palace was a medieval laundry. I hiked down the steep stairway to the laundry and saw the historic wash tubs, built directly over the river, and constructed out of lava stone about 500 years ago. I couldn’t imagine what life must have been like for the women of Cefalù in the 1600’s. Every day they carried baskets filled with dirty laundry down to the wash tubs, scrub them in the cold river, then took the clean wet laundry back up the stairs to bring home and hang on clothes lines. However, I was very surprised when I learned this ancient laundry practice was still in use until the 1950’s, when the city finally had running water in homes. Yikes! I’ll never complain about doing laundry ever again!

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Though Cefalù was very crowded and repressively hot in August, I enjoyed strolling along the narrow streets with my Sicilian cousins, visiting the quaint shops, seeing beautiful views of the sun drenched sea and watching people having a wonderful time. I also indulged in a Sicilian summertime favorite –refreshing granita. Granita is a flavored ice slushy, usually made with fruit. My choice was the watermelon granita and it was mouthwateringly amazing!!

#Sicily, #Sicilia, #MyBellaSicily, #VisitSicily, #Palermo, #Italy, #Sicilian

 

 

What’s so good about Good Friday?

Christians throughout the world are honoring Good Friday, one of the holiest days of the year leading up to Easter Sunday. In Italian, Good Friday is translated as Venerdì Santo or Sacred Friday and throughout Sicily there are dramatic processions reenacting his passion, death and resurrection. Worldwide there will be passion plays and Easter pageants, but sadly we are still living in a world where many Christians are being persecuted and killed for their faith.

This day represents when our Lord Jesus was tortured, mocked and ultimately crucified on a cross to die – the worst day in human history. So have you ever wondered why such a horrific day is called “Good” Friday (in the English language) when there’s nothing good about it? Maybe horrible Friday or devastating Friday, but certainly not “good.”

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There are several theories why it’s known as Good Friday. The word “good” is from the word holy, or Good Friday is derived from “God’s Friday.” Personally, I believe it’s called Good Friday because it is the definitive reality that good conquered evil. Death could not hold the body of Jesus and he arose from the grave to a glorified body. Jesus conquered sin and death and gives us the pathway to eternal life, if we’re willing to accept him. Yet without his suffering we could not fully understand the power of His resurrection. He may not ask us to suffer and die a martyr’s death, but he asks each of us to share the love and mercy of Christ with ALL.

As humans we go through life-changing situations –depression or loneliness due to death of a loved one, even the fear of our own death; the loss of a job or finances, the reality our dreams may never happen; comprehending your aging body and fragile health, or struggling with an addictive behavior you cannot control.

There are no easy answers to our life challenges, but on this Good Friday, let’s try to reduce the distractions and “noise” of life for 15 minutes, and quiet our hearts to listen to the still small voice of our victorious Lord and Savior Jesus speaking to us and saying, “I love you. I forgive you. I conquered death, and if you trust me, I will see you through your difficult situation, too.”

Family: Our link to the past and bridge to the future

I was very close to my paternal grandmother, Ann Comito Battiata. Her father died tragically in a fire on the job when she was only 7. For survival, she married at 15, became a mother at 16, and was a widow by 18. In her heyday she was a Flapper of the Roaring 20’s until she experienced a spiritual awakening in 1930. Her faith carried her through very difficult times, including the Great Depression, WWII, the deaths of her mother and husband, and right up until her own death in July 1977.

Etched in my mind are so many precious memories of her cooking, watching television game shows while knitting a mile a minute, shifting her 3-speed on the column Chevy with her right hand, while holding a cigarette in the left hand, studying the well-worn pages of her Bible, and telling me to ‘never forget your family.’ By profession she was a hair dresser, but also worked at Detroit Tiger Stadium. What a character – she was witty, patient, forgiving and kept secrets of her very arduous past.

After she died, I was heartbroken. I took comfort in researching her Sicilian family, which wasn’t easy in the early 80’s. There was no Ancestry.com or FamilySearch.org. Throughout the years, I’ve gathered remnants of her life, starting with her parents, Angelo Comito and Antonina Barbiera of Partinico. Partinico is an agricultural town about 20 miles southwest of Palermo. They immigrated to Coldwater Michigan in 1907 and my grandmother was born in 1908. After her father died in 1915 her mother took Annie and her little sister Jennie to Detroit, where they knew other families from Partinico. They lost all contact with the family back in Sicily.

SICILY – THE WILD WEST

By the 1990’s I had hit a roadblock in my Sicilian research and concluded the only way to learn more about our family was to go to Sicily. There was just one issue. No it wasn’t the Mafia, I was not afraid of them. I read a book describing where local bandits travel the highways in Sicily stealing from tourists. I pictured a scene from an old western movie, where outlaws swooped down on an unsuspecting stagecoach, forcing travelers to handover their valuables. As a single woman, this depiction made me apprehensive about traveling alone to Sicily. There was no one to go with me, so the trip idea was abandoned.

FATHER KNOWS BEST

Fast forward to September 2013, the yearning to visit Sicily was pulling at me, like an ocean current. I looked into some tours, but I needed a custom tour, so I could spend time researching in Partinico and possibly uncover relatives. My father, now in his late 80’s, suggested I try to get a custom tour and see if any American cousins would go with me. I took his sage advice, (I normally do) and created an event on Facebook. I thought perhaps one or two cousins may be interested, but to my surprise, seven cousins along with their spouses and/or friends wanted to go. Suddenly I found myself the official travel coordinator of 15 going to Sicily in October 2014.

Check out my next post, where I’ll go into more detail about our amazing family trip to Sicily, and whether we were successful at reuniting family in Partinico.