Singing is in my DNA; my mother said that when I was born I didn’t howl in the traditional, time-honored manner: she insists that my first breath came while singing a Renata Tebaldi-ish high ‘C’. From that moment on, music has always been an important part of my life, but never more so than at Christmas.
Christmas caroling became a family tradition the year I was in the third grade. We started out with my parents, my four siblings and me, each contributing to the best of our ability. The attempt had such a great success that the tradition continued through the years, the choir growing as we added family members and then school friends.
Christmas caroling continued even after I married, both in Bologna and Mistretta. Every year in Bologna, between 1979 and 1983, our group was invited to sing in front of the giant Christmas tree in Piazza Nettuno (Neptune Square), and although caroling is not a common happenstance in Italy, our efforts were enjoyed by our listeners as much as we enjoyed singing. Then, we would go listen to Midnight Mass concerts which included Handel’s Messiah, Gregorian Chants and various others.
However, one of my favorite memories of Italian Christmas caroling took place in Mistretta, a tiny town nestled in the Sicilian Nebrodi mountain chain. One year, shortly after our arrival in the town, the head priest asked our church choir if we wanted to sing during the Midnight Mass that year. After conferring with the other church members we decided to sing a beautiful little song called “Stars Were Gleaming” taken from the children’s hymnal.
Finally, 11:00 pm, December 24th arrived. The children had napped and, after hours of practice, we were ready to face a public of over 3,000 people. After dressing ourselves in our warmest clothing, we set off toward the church. We had left a little early because it had started to snow earlier and we needed to proceed slowly– everything in Mistretta is downhill, even when it was uphill – in order to avoid a nasty fall on the slippery cobblestone road. We also wanted to get there before the rest of the city showed up: seats were at a premium and we wanted to sit close to the front so we could be ready to sing when called.
At 11:55, we looked around and found ourselves surrounded by a huge crowd. Anticipation was high as the head priest, Padre Michele walked in with another priest we had never seen before, and the excitement was tangible. The little children, dressed in their costumes for the Christmas story, stopped fidgeting and turned their eyes toward Padre Michele as he stepped toward the microphone. The tingling in our fingers was not entirely a product of the freezing cold…
The minutes ticked on as we sat waiting anxiously for our turn to sing. A new priest had just arrived that day; he led the children around the chapel from “inn to inn” and ending at the manger scene at the entrance of the building. Once “Mary and Joseph” were settled in their places in the manger, Padre Michele announced that “our Mormon brothers and sisters will now sing for us”. Our moment had arrived. We stood up, knees shaking, and turned to face the congregation.
Voices quavering (was it the cold?) we began “Stars were gleaming, shepherds dreaming; and the night was dark and chill…” Our voices gained strength as we continued, “Onward going, gleaming, glowing, leading still, our Christmas star!” As we turned back towards our seats, we were surprised to hear another voice singing the same song, in another language; turning back once again, we listened, mesmerized as the new priest sang our carol with gusto.
After the mass, our group went and spoke with the new priest. We learned that he had arrived in Italy only days before from Poland, and that the carol we had sung that night was a Polish carol. He thanked us for singing that particular hymn and making him feel at home in a foreign land. And from that time, thanks to Christmas caroling, Padre Tomasz was our friend.
© Mary Purpari December 25, 2014 All Rights reserved