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The Florentine Ceppo 21/12/2011

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c. 1910

At Florence, as elsewhere, [Christmas] is the season when presents are made by persons of means to their servants, tradesmen, and dependants of every kind. These ‘boxes’, as we call them, are known in Tuscanyas ceppi or ‘logs’, and the name shows that the Yule-log is a reality here, far deeper and more ancient than the show of seasonable holly and mistletoe laid out for the foreigner on the Lung’ Arno would lead one to suspect. These greens are a display unknown till recent years, but the Ceppo is an ancient local usage which deserves consideration. The name of the Ceppo is derived, almost without change, from the Latin cippus, the tree-trunk, and the log was great indeed which used to burn on every Tuscan hearth as each 24 December came round. Boccaccio, condescending for a moment from mythology to describe the habits of his own country and people, tells what was done at Christmas inFlorence: how the house-father laid the great log on the Lari, as the fire-dogs of the hearth were called in his day; how the family gathered about it, while their head called for wine, drank, and poured a libation from his cup on the glowing wood, after which the others drank in turn as the cup went round. Later authorities enable us to complete the scene, telling how the log was beaten to make the sparks fly up the chimney, and that the Florentines liked it large, so that when kindled it might burn long, even for days, without going out. Here then are all the signs which show the antiquity of a rite. The house itself, without further consecration than the presence there of the family, is the temple; the hearth the altar, and the father the priest. The Lari, or fire-dogs, are the Dii Lares of Roman household religion. The ceppo itself is a true and huge tree-trunk; it must be so if, as we shall presently see, it is to burn continuously for twelve days. One thinks of it as set on end, reaching high in the chimney and sinking gradually to the hearth day by day as it burns away from the root. Thus, behind Roman religion, we find what preceded it. The Ceppo is a yearly return to the original life of the woods, when the hunter’s fire smouldered from day to day in the root of the standing tree, and when that hearth, blown betimes to a leaping flame, gathered about it all the mystery and comfort that might belong to forest nights in winter: their encompassing fear and its sure, if narrow remedy. What we know of how this primitive religion developed in the definite worship of the Lares shows that the libation of wine at Ceppo, still used atFlorence in the fourteenth century if no later, represents an offering .to the spirits of darkness and of the underworld; perhaps to those of the dead.

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