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Beans and the Befana 08/12/2011

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As we have seen, it has been the Florentine habit to prepare for the moment of danger by a special diet. A full meal is eaten, and children especially are encouraged to partake plentifully of beans against the coming of the Befana. This food, as is well known, has certain physical consequences, and the verse the full-fed children sing shows that these are counted on for the success of the matter in hand. Only the children whose bodies are ‘like drums’ are those who may hope to escape.

Practical Jokes at Easter 10/11/2011

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c. 1910

Within the memory of those still living, mischievous boys, armed with needles and stout pack-thread, passed unobserved through the crowded Piazza on Easter Saturday, sewing the clothes of the countryfolk together in the press. Wlien the ‘Scoppio del Carro’ was over, and the crowd broke up, the feast became a true hilaria of jest levelled at the unfortunate men and women who stood perplexed at the trick, and confused in their vain attempts to separate. The pack-thread that joined the people clearly corresponded to the cord that united the pyres and directed the dove, the messenger of Venus and the bearer of her fires.

Birds and Easter 22/09/2011

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c. 1910

In the Val d’Arno birds certainly play their part in the great spring festival. On Easter Monday at Signa little children of two and three years old ride into Church on the asses that bear the Easter offerings of oil to the Pievano. A small finch is put into the last child’s hand, and presently flies free to escape by the Church door. Its flight is closely watched, for it is believed to carry the fortune of the season and year to the person or the house on which it first alights. At Florence on Easter Saturday, the messenger that travels along the wire out of the Cathedral door to the car is still called the colombia. Once it must have been shaped as a dove. Earlier still, as at Rome in 1493, a living pigeon was probably used; and even yet, as at Signa, this flight is auspicious, and is watched to read the fortune of the year.

Baptism at the Baptistery 03/02/2011

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c. 1900

There are many quaint rites and ceremonies connected with a Florentine baptism, not only at the time, but in preparation, and one of these takes place on Easter Eve, when the archbishop blesses the font for the coming year. The stone basin is filled with water, which is first divided in the form of a cross, then redivided and thrown to the four points of the compass. Three times the celebrant breathes on it, and, dipping the paschal candle three times into the water, says, ‘May the power of the Holy Ghost descend into the fulness of this font!’ The newly-blessed water is then sprinkled on the heads of the people, and the oil of catechumens and the oil of chrism are poured into the font and mixed with the water, during all which rites suitable prayers are recited, the service closing with the Litany of the Saints.

The baptism itself is a quaint and pretty sight, and there is much symbolism in the service which, if reverently performed, would be both impressive and beautiful; but Italian priests have an unedifying way of gabbling through their offices with wandering eyes and apparently an utter indifference to the business on hand. As I sat in the Baptistery that afternoon while the newly-made Piero-Filippo-Alessandro-Giuseppe-Maria made his lusty protest against priestly doings until his carriage could be hastily called to convey him home, quite an army of babies arrived to be received into the Church. In no case was the mother present, as in the natural course of things it is impossible that she should be, for although – especially among the upper classes – baptism is occasionally deferred for three or four weeks, the usual time is when the child is only two days old.

Some of the babies arrived in a carriage and pair, and were borne in, among a party of friends, by a balia of enormous dignity, the infant itself wrapped in clouds of silk and lace; some were muffled in old shawls, and when unfolded looked like roly-polies tied in a cloth; for although the habit of swaddling has died out among the upper classes, it still prevails among the poor.

I spoke to a woman who stood beside me, holding a small swaddled bundle, which she told me was her niece. The unlucky mite had not been very welcome, for there were already seven at home, and the mother, poor soul had burnt many wax candles to Madonna in hopes that the Padre Eterno might be induced to take the baby back. He had done nothing of the kind, however; and it had finally arrived, so dark a little creature that they had brought it to the old Baptistery to name it ‘Nerina’! She, the godmother, had presented the child with a ten-centime stamp and a soldo rosary as a christening gift; but the godfather, who she told me was a greengrocer without family, and quite a pezzo grosso, had given no less than a franc – so that Nerina would start in life with the handsome sum of elevenpence towards her ‘dote’! Evidently her parents had done well for her in their selection of a godfather; but the choosing of godparents often becomes a mere farce, as it is not unusual for the sponsor to be a brother or sister of five or six years old. Should a little cousin of another sex undertake this duty, however, it must be remembered that sponsorship constitutes a real relationship, and that no future marriage between the two children would be possible without a special dispensation of the Pope.

Although only three names may be registered for a child at the Municipality, there is no limit to the number which may be given in church, provided that all are saintly ones; and the Roman Church venerates an army of saints so unlimited, that it is hard to find a name on which the calendar has not set its hall-mark of worth. That the Italians avail themselves of this privilege of multiplying names, I certainly had abundant proof that afternoon, listening to lists which would have seemed a little exaggerated even for a prince of the blood; and I am sure that many a child – not excluding Bianca Maria [the author’s charge] – is bewildered if suddenly called upon to give its list of names.

At last came the turn of Nerina, whom I watched with interest as she was carried forward to the priest, while the assistant held a lighted candle, emblem of the Gospel light of truth. Then followed a long indistinct murmur of Latin on the part of the priest, punctuated by the godparents (at the prompting of the assistant) with responses of ‘Credo’ and ‘Amen’. Salt was thrust between the lips – the emblem of incorruptibility and wisdom, and also as a symbol of the evil of the world which the child must taste; and this was followed by the ceremony of the ‘saliva’ – witnessing which I could sympathise with Mary Queen of Scots when, at the baptism of Prince James, she refused to allow it, protesting, ‘No priest shall spit in my child’s mouth!’

The oil of catechumens was next rubbed behind the baby’s ears, and a cross made on forehead, mouth, and breast, to symbolise the consecration of each sense. The priest then laid the purple stole from his own neck across the tiny form, as a sign of the yoke of Christ which must be borne; and while the assistant held back the cover of the font, poured water three times on the little lolling head, which was afterwards wiped with appalling vigour, and finally powdered with a large puff. After the baptism with water in the threefold Name the priest changed his stole to white, there was more anointing with the oil of chrism – on the top of the head this time, as a sign that the child has received the invisible unction of the Holy Ghost; then, while a lighted candle was held in the little hand as a symbol that the virtues of faith, hope, and charity must be openly professed and practised, a short homily was delivered, at the close of which the tiny new-made Christian, wholly unconscious of the mighty change wrought by these few minutes, was dismissed and bidden to ‘Go in peace!’

Yes, go in peace, little Nerina; for if there is scant welcome for you in the poor crowded home where there are already too many mouths to fill, there is no grudging in that great family of which you have now become a member; and if your worldly possessions are very small – your swathing bands, your glass rosary, and your elevenpence – you have yet received a gift greater than anything which the world has power either to give or take away.