Cambridge Book Review

[Issue #8, Fall 2002]


Palio del Viccio and the Festival of St. Nicholas

From Aunt Pig of Puglia: Ricordi de La Familia Ferri

Patricia Catto


Besides Christmas, there were a few other major celebrations without which my family could and would not do. With the exception of my father and grandfather, everyone waited with bated breath for February 16th and May 8th.

On these two glorious days, we went into Bari, the larger, adjoining city, for two amazing Pugliese festivals. The one in February was called Palio del Viccio and mainly consisted of ten guys on horses trying to tilt at a water bag hung high up on a pole. Whoever hit it and broke the bag, got the viccio -- the turkey!

This particular festival had enormous appeal for Rocco and Stephano, who had once almost managed to rent a horse for a few months before the contest and had almost gotten to practice tilting at an old flour sack filled with wet leaves.

Though they'd never done either of these two things, they talked about the particular challenges and nuances of the "sport" as though they'd been brought up in a kind of Olympic village training camp for water-bag breaking, and had won about four thousand turkeys in the course of their stellar careers.

The real fun of this festival was hearing them criticize every movement made by the ten supple and extremely graceful young men who were actually competing.

Every year there came the moment when my mother, having taken all she could of her brothers' carping braggadocio, would turn to them ritualistically in the middle of the crazy, cheering crowd and yell at the top of her voice:

"Shut up, already! I've had it with you. You couldn't win a goddamn turkey if the only water bag you had to hit was under your asses in a chair, and all you had to do was sit down hard. You'd miss it, you understand what I'm saying? You'd miss it."

"No, we wouldn't," Stephano would yell back, oblivious to how ridiculous his retort made him seem.

"Oh yes, yes you would," my mother would scream in turn.

"No, I don't think we would," Rocco would add, furthering the ludicrousness of it all.

Whatever they said, however, was just great. The crowded day with its swirling color, food, music, its chivalric echoes of a medieval past, and the gorgeous bodies of the men and horses never failed to please our hearts' thirst for edifying spectacle.

Standing there in the crowd, clutching my beloved Aunt Ciara's hand on one side and my sweet Aunt Mary's on the other, I felt connected to my own life, the life of my people, and to our place on the planet for a thousand years running, backwards and forwards.

If anyone had asked me or would ever ask me, "What does it feel like to be perfect?" I'd have told them, "It feels like this. To stand with your own on a day like this, in this place, and want nothing more. It feels like Jesus kissing you full on the lips. It feels like winning the turkey in the jousting contest of life, and claiming that delicious bright-feathered prize."

Our full-blown enthusiasm for Palio del Viccio, considerable as it was, was rivaled by our attachment to the Feast of Saint Nicholas.

Whereas the turkey-joust festival spilled over with secular joie de vivre, and lots of vicarious competitive energy, the Feast of St. Nicholas offered a calmer, lovelier spectacle, verging on the sacred, promising affiliation with the sacred -- but not quite fulfilling that promise. It still had its free-for-all character.

The Feast of St. Nicholas harkened back to the eleventh century when sixty-two Christian sailors, unduly attached to the saint who would later become "Santa Claus," stole his holy bones from the heathen Muslims and sailed with their dessicated prize for Beri, Christian Beri!

"That would have been one trip to pass up," my mother would comment every year. "Imagine having to smell somebody's bones all the way from Turkey! No thanks."

"They would've had the odor of jasmine and roses," reported Aunt Ciara. "The fragrance of immortality, Palma. Because they were saints' bones, understand?"

My mother took it in out of deference to what she believed to be her sister's closeness to God. But basically, she was skeptical. To her, bones were bones.

"Well, more power to them if they had the stomach for it; at least we get to have this festival. I should be home working, but let's just say this is a great day and enjoy it!"

"Okay," everyone agreed. But it was never that easy. Away from her daily servitude to foccaccia, my mother swung mood-wise between giddy hilarity and crippling guilt. By far, her wisecracking was the more interesting pole.

This year, as she watched the caravel on wheels carrying the antique statue of St. Nicholas through the streets to the Basilica of San Nicola, she was in rare form. Nothing escaped her scrutiny, as the oompah band leading the procession solemnly played the Italian national anthem.

Two of the standard bearers, just in front of the Saint himself, leapt into my mother's focus. How she could see so well and so far from our spot on the porch of San Nicola's Basilica was beyond me. But she could.

"Madonna mia! Look who they got carrying the flags this year," she said incredulously. "It's the DiCenzo twins. Look, Pasquale, they're just your age and they're the size of cows already. Can you believe it?"

"Oh," said Aunt Mary, peering down to the street, "come on. They look kind of cute. Those standards are heavy. They've got a big job, those poor kids."

"Hey, they're up to it," my mother confirmed. "It looks like their mother's been feeding them lard to get 'em ready. And she put them in pink on top of it. Pink tulle. Disgraceful. Pasquale, do you see how bad pink makes you look if you're fat?"

"So what SHOULD they be wearing?" I asked, all snotty.

"Some bags over their heads," said Uncle Stephano.

"Bags over their heads, ha ha ha. That's rich," Rocco jumped in to admire his brother's rapier wit.

"God, why didn't I stay home?" my mother queried the world which had betrayed her with its less-than-aesthetic elements. "To be subjected to this. What a miserable sight. I can't go anywhere. I'm cursed. Look at those twins, will you?"

Without meaning to make obvious fun of her sour sister's appetite for misery, my Aunt Mary started sniggering. Within seconds, Uncle Alfredo joined in, and pretty soon everybody was laughing.

Turning in repugnance from the puffing, sweating twins, my mother was greeted by the sight of her entire family guffawing. It took her, I could tell, quite by surprise.

For a moment she narrowed her left eye like she was getting ready to attack. But then, the corners of her red, shapely lips turned up -- all the way up. And she began to laugh, too, at herself. She laughed and laughed.

"Quit it, you fools," she said, catching a breath here and there. "I'm going to have to pee if you keep it up. It's not funny. Keep it up and I'm not walking home with you. I mean it."

"Good," Ciara laughed on, "you stay here with St. Nicholas and the twins. We'll see you in Casamassima. Who needs you, Palma?"

So there stood my mother in the heart of the Festival of Saint Nicholas -- at the end of the Via del Carmine, poised just so between the two stylized bulls which support its huge columns -- laughing and trying hard not to pee.

I would be lying if I told you I didn't love her at that moment, in spite of every niggling, crotchety thing she'd ever done or would do again in five minutes, once she'd come to her senses.

But for right then, she was essentially beautiful, unguarded and free -- free of her foccaccia, free of my father's claims on her sense of duty, free of having to tend and shape my attitude and me. It must have felt good, I realized deeply. She was free in that moment, even of herself, a self from which she, most of all, wanted a vacation.

And wasn't that the purpose of a festival like that of St. Nicholas, the patron saint of children and sailors?

To feel free and expansive and playful, and like your very bones had set sail for somewhere which welcomed them as miraculous?



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Patricia Catto teaches literature and creative writing at the Kansas City Art Institute. She's an Italian American woman with many eating disorders of a spiritual nature. Write to her at pcatto@kcai.edu.


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