Other Christmases: 1947

Mondovì, vintage photo

Mondovì, vintage photo

Italy, Mondovì, Delle Ripe Street. A few days before Christmas 1947.

The basket of Baby Jesus was waiting, already filled with presents for the children of the Delle Ripe neighborhood.
That year, it was mostly socks. Exultate! The hand-knitted woolen socks kept the children’s feet warm in their boots.
For the following year, the planning foresaw mittens, also made of pure sheep’s wool and hand-knitted. Jubilate! What a pleasure, what a delight! Nothing was as warm as these mittens.
A year later, after socks and mittens, it was the turn of the woolen scarves, also hand-knitted. Laudate Dominum! Long and shaped like windsocks, they protected the children’s necks from pernicious drafts.
Once the three-year cycle was over, the same cycle began again.

Let’s face it: the most disappointing side of these presents was their lightness. The children of Delle Ripe Street all agreed on this point.

On the night of December 24 to 25, the children went to bed very late: after midnight mass. A few moments later, they all dreamed that a shadow passed by and placed a present on the bed bottom.
The next morning, waking up was painful. On the one hand, the longing for the Christmas’ presents urged the children to wake up; on the other hand, the paralyzing force of sleep advised them to maintain the status quo. When consciousness finally awakened, it was always the toes that moved first, to explore the underside of the blankets in the hope of sensing the presence of a heavy object above. Who knows: a small bicycle, a Meccano construction set with a crane, a pair of roller skates, a scroll saw with all its accessories… Or maybe a lighter obstacle, but light and hard at the same time, as precious objects are. What do I know: a watch, a fountain pen, a large box of Giotto colors; a small bag of glass marbles…

Unfortunately, in Delle Ripe Street, reality always stopped short of expectations. Walking towards the end of the bed, the big toe immediately felt an all too familiar sensation. The object was there, but it was very light, and the kicks that the toe impressed on it through the blankets produced only the obnoxious rustle of wrapping paper around a small woolen garment. A final, dispirited blow knocked it unceremoniously to the floor.
The only element of surprise was the color of the wool. Almost always beige.

But that year…

That year, before Christmas, the Flea Game had appeared. I had seen a first edition of it at the parish play center and I was immediately delighted by the game. There was something magical about the colored plastic Flea which, when pressed by the oblong bar, leapt across the table and fell on an opposing Flea, capturing it. If there was a cloth on the table, the Flea’s jumps became prodigious and their initial impulse could be calibrated to perfection.

The parish play center was also frequented by rich children. Their Flea boxes were huge and contained dozens of multi-shaped Fleas of all colors, thicknesses and elasticity. They had round ones and elliptical ones, hexagonal ones and octagonal ones. They had one for every situation, and their technological superiority often led them to dominate the poor children’s crude Fleas, made of Bakelite, which jumped badly, awkwardly and haphazardly.

In Delle Ripe Street, opposite and a little downstream from our house, there was a tobacconist whose shop window was covered with a green tablecloth. Around the 15th of December, a blue plastic box, half open, appeared in the center of the showcase. Even from a distance, it was obvious that the box was a Flea box, that it could be held well in the hand, that the quality of the Fleas was good, and that the owner would not make a bad impression. Next to the box was a ticket with the price: 50 lire.
I had watched and rewatched it, over and over and over again. The price seemed affordable. The next day, on my way to school, I had immediately crossed the street. The Flea was still there: a flash of blue standing out against the billiard green of the tablecloth. The rounded edges of the box seemed to have been designed to slip well into the pockets of the child who would become its owner. Lucky him!

I no longer believed in the Baby Jesus. Although belatedly, my friends had finally managed to get me out of my gullibility without sparing me the mockery. I now knew, alas, that my own Baby Jesus, the one with whom I had to deal to get the Flea displayed for sale on the showcase, was a stubborn and unimaginative maternal being. The year before, she had brought me the beige woolen scarf; this year it would then be the turn of the wool socks in the same color. For some time, in fact, I had been watching my grandmother knitting by the fireside.
In any case, in class, I always tried to be attentive, constantly holding my hands “in seconda”, as we used to say in those days to mean both hands clasped behind my back. If the schoolteacher asked a question to the class, the first hand that went up was mine: I wanted to approach the Christmas period with an impeccable report card from all points of view.
At home too, I maintained an exemplary behavior. Before dinner, I eagerly distributed the milk jugs to the homes of the various customers who all lived in the gloomiest neighborhoods of old Mondovì. Coming back with the empty jars, I walked up Delle Ripe Street, beyond the Bar Augustus, and stopped, dumbfounded, in front of the window where The Flea lay. Out of the corner of my eye, I tried to see if my mother could see me from her workstation in the dairy. She saw me, surely, because I saw her. But she didn’t make the connection, or maybe she didn’t want to.
In the kitchen, while waiting for dinner, I studied ostensibly, sometimes muttering the poem that I had to learn by heart. All the expedients were good so that the Baby Jesus on whom my Flea depended, finally understood the equation: good child + studious child + helpful child + child whose nose was often against the window of the tobacconist + exposed Flea + affordable price = light, but hard, Christmas present with the Flea inside.

Christmas was fast approaching, and in the evening, I went to the parish of Saint-Peter to sing Regem venturum Dominum, venite adoremus. After dinner, through the unlit window of the tobacconist’s window, I could see The Flea resting in the dim light of the street. It was a moment of great peace. The tobacconist was closed, so no one could buy it from me until the next day. As I passed The Flea, I always gave her a tender, almost fatherly look.
And so we arrived on Christmas Eve. That evening, at dinner, I had spoken briefly about the new Flea Game, which was very pretty and could be played with the family, at home. I had also mentioned the tobacconist’s Flea Box: small, discreet, cheap and practically across from us.

Giving the impression of still believing in the Baby Jesus, I had even mentioned the possibility that this year, exceptionally, the Holy Child, instead of socks, could bring Fleas to good children. The allusion fell into an enigmatic silence. Perhaps all was not yet lost.

That evening I had distributed the milk pots early: I wanted to make the most of this evening full of promise. A soggy, icy snow was falling from the sky, struggling to “hold” on the road. Between two deliveries, as soon as I could but always with a stereotypical smile on my face, I crossed the street and pressed my forehead hard against the tobacconist’s window. My mother could not fail to see me: once we even made eye contact.

Around seven o’clock in the evening – it was already dark – I had seen my father cycling down the Delle Ripe’s descent. He had passed very close to me, without seeing me, in a swirl of air and snow. This vision could have become a disturbing memory. In the saddle of his heavy bicycle, he had appeared much taller than normal, his large military coat flapping like a black wing against the dim light of the street lamps in a wirlwind of snowflakes. Instead, I kept a solemn memory of it, like a photograph from another time. The image could be that of a hero.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t my father the Baby Jesus who counted, and it would have been useless to try to obtain mediation from him. At dinner, my allusions to children’s games had not failed; to the Flea Game in particular. I seemed to catch a glimpse of a sibylline smile on the face of my real Baby Jesus, yet not very sensitive to frivolity.

There had also been encouraging signs. At midnight mass I had sung particularly well, and not only the easy Tu scendi dalle stelle, but also the difficult Gregorian antiphons like Descendet dominus sicut pluvia in vellum, the …et colles fluent lac et mel quia veniet prophaeta magnus, and even the En clara vox redarguit, obscura quaeque personans
At about one o’clock in the morning, on the forecourt of the church, I had noticed that the snow, which was now falling thick and fluffy, gave the whole creation the appearance of a white, holy and very tender Christmas. I had interpreted this as a favorable omen.

Domenico Magazù, Messe de Noël, Paroisse de St. Pierre, Mondovì. Huile sur toile, 1987

Domenico Magazù, Christmas Mass, St. Peter Parish, Mondovì. Oil on canvas, 1987

The next morning, I woke up while it was still dark and immediately perceived the presence of an object near the bottom of my bed.
The object gave off such a feeling of lightness that I had a brief dizzyness. With my big toe, and without much hope, I had given it a couple of taps from under the covers. The object had emitted the typical rustling sound of the wrapping paper that enclosed a small woolen garment.
Another kick had it rolling carelessly on the ground.
In the package, the Baby Jesus had put a pair of hand-knitted woolen socks.


HERE the italian version

HERE the french version