Guest blogger, Christine Rebellato nee Mattiazzo, reflects on the Christmas traditions that were important in her family as she grew up. Christine focuses on the presepio or the crib that has great significance for her and her family. Christine has provided all the photos.
When it came to the emotional time of dividing the estate of our parents, Virginia Santin and Oscar Mattiazzo, our presepio (or presepe) was at the top of my list. That surprised me and I questioned my choice.
Our presepio natalizio was made in Italy. There are 14 hand-painted hollow statues made of plaster. The tallest figure measures 30 cms. As seen in the photo, we have Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, a manger, three shepherds, two sheep, three wise men, a cow and a donkey. The painting is detailed, bright and ornate with highlights of gold. The set may be, or is very similar to, a vintage Fontanini Nativity. The Fontanini company was formed in 1908 by Emanuele Fontanini in Bagni di Lucca , a small Tuscan village. The House of Fontanini is today run by his descendants.
According to dad, Oscar, our nativity set was bought to be displayed in my parents’ shop, Croydon Park Provision Stores which they owned from 1949 to the early 1960s. The Nativity set was likely purchased from Pellegrini’s Christian Supplies in Adelaide. Later it was brought to our home and displayed every Christmas in our fireplace at Croydon Park then at West Lakes Shore, until dad died in 2017. Now, my family sets it up in our fireplace. The presepio is creating new memories for the next generation of Mattiazzo great-grandchildren. A couple of years ago I found two mini toy cars in the manger with baby Jesus, a gift from our three-year-old grandson Oscar!
When we were young, our Mattiazzo nonni, Maria and Angelo, lived with us. The presepio reminds me of my Nonna Maria who shared this great love. She told us of making the presepio in Bigolino when she was young. She would add moss to the floor of the nativity scene. In our primary school years at St Margaret Mary’s, we would have school crib competitions initiated by the parish priest, Fr Michael Murphy. Nonna would delight in our creations.
Making or displaying the presepio has been a long tradition in Italy. St Francis of Assisi is credited with creating the first live nativity scene in 1223, il presepio vivente. The presepio has been a symbol of Christmas for Italian families for perhaps as long as a thousand years. Some presepi include scenes from everyday life.
On Christmas Eve our parents worked at their shop til late. No matter how tired they were, they always made it special for us. The Eve was serene. My sisters, Helen and Vicki, and I rested, then our family went to Midnight Mass either at our local church, St Margaret Mary’s at Croydon or to the Chapel of the Calvary Hospital at North Adelaide. We went to Calvary for years, from my childhood until our own children were young. For many years Zia Anna and Zio Vito Santin would join us.
The Midnight Mass was intimate and beautiful, accompanied by the angelic voices of the nuns of The Little Company of Mary in their white habits and wide pale blue veils. Of course, the crib was prominent and in 1994 the priest asked to carry our young baby daughter, representing new life, to the altar. After Mass we would go home for coffee, a liqueur and Christmas cake. When we were children we were allowed to open one gift before bed.
Helen, Vicki and I grew up with a strong sense of family. Our Christmas time centred around the sharing of a meal on Christmas Day, usually with our nonni who lived with us, dad’s zio Beniamino Buffon who was the brother of Oscar’s mother, and later Modesto Rossetto who was the son of Oscar’s zia Carmela Rossetto. The meal was delicious but simple. The first course was risotto al ragù o ai fegatini followed by roast chicken which was prized in the 1950s and 1960s. In later years chicken was replaced by turkey, pork and ham. Mum always prepared salads and cooked a variety of vegetables in olive oil with onion and tomato. Sometimes there was soft polenta.
Christmas was usually a time for trifle in long parfait glasses then Christmas pudding, Christmas cake and later panettone. Mum and dad immigrated as young children in the mid 1930s in an era of poverty in Italy when there were few delicacies, so we didn’t have many sweets of Italian tradition passed down. However, mum was a great cook who shared recipes and successfully made a wide variety of dishes. Crostoli, custard-filled cornetti, fritole and croccante were made. Bought mandorlato (torrone) was also an annual favourite.
When we were young, some Christmas meals were shared at home with many of our relatives. The days were noisy and filled with laughter. We loved listening to the stories of the older generations and being with our cousins. The women all helped out in the kitchen. I can still see mum stirring that huge pot of risotto!
The men would share a drink, reminisce and re-tell stories.
On the quieter Christmas Days when we were young, we would go to Lockleys later in the afternoon to visit the Santin families and mum Virginia’s parents Nonna Cea, Costantina Santin, and Nonno Giovanni. On some hot Christmas Days we even went to the beach.
These memories are special to me. They return when I look at our presepio in the fireplace. I guess that’s why the presepio was at the top of my list. It links me to our nonni, our parents, my sisters and their children, our zii and cousins, our children, and now our little grandchildren.
It’s a presepio and more!
Christine Rebellato nee Mattiazzo
12 December 2021