THE COMING OF THE CEPPO
A calendar of feste in Siena would show that here the children have their full share of rights and privileges. After the sixth of January, on which day in memory of the royal gifts once offered then, the Befana, a mysterious, kindly old woman bestows her gifts upon deserving little ones, they have not long to wait for another festa; in March comes San Giuseppe with its attendant delights. Then through all the day and evening delicious fritters of the finest rice flour may be "eaten hot" in the little kitchens set up in the streets and in the great Piazza. Pass under the green wreaths studded with paper flowers - the fashion on this day of San Giuseppe, - and gestooned above the entrance to the Via Diacceto: the men in caps and aprons who are making the fritters, - sometimes the caps are of red satin to match curious little jackets, - have not a moment's rest; reckless buyers are eating greedily, almost burning their tongues in their haste; eager little boys are holding out their centesimi and counting the fritters as they are being sugared; now comes a cameriera with a try to carry some home, where the family sit waiting for them at table. Today the contrada of the Onda makes great festa, and the little church of San Giuseppe is hung inside with its own banners of delicate blue and white, on which the dolphin curls so gracerfully, and the gay banners of the allied contrade. As you draw near the church you will see little booths laden and hung with rattles and windmills and many other such tempting playthings; but your most important purchase is not to be made here, so hold your soldini tight and climb the almost perpendicular Via Agata that leads up from the church to the Piazza Sant'Agostino. You will find yourself mounting between rows of little carts; I know you have never seen any like them. Should you ever have thought of making wheels of pine-cones? All that week the baby drags his cart about in the street, then when he tires of it, he may if he is enterprising smash the pine-cones delightfully with a stone, extract the little nuts inside, and crush these in their turn; for if his mammina is not too busy she will make a cake of them and bake it for him, as Romilda told me she used to do for her boy.
Take time to select your car. Notice that they vary, not only in size but in colour and design as well, and in magnificence of decoration. One is surmounted by a circle of engaging jockeys on their horses, who as the cart glides along make a perpetual race in a ring, round and round forever; another boasts a sort of dainty nest over which birds flutter trermuously in time to the motion; and still another has agile little figures on top that twirl about or turn somersaults as long as one cares to run dragging the cart and at the same time looking back to see them Let us buy this last, for best of all the handle is blue and white, and on the side of the cart is painted Onda in white letters on a blue ground. Here comes Arrigo toddling toward us beside his mother. He is just beginning to talk, but he tells me quite plainly that his cart belongs to the Pantera, the "Panther", and he knows that I am only jesting when I insist that those colours are mine, the colours of my country's flag; he shakes his head with all its tight little golden curls, and laughs at the joke, as if red white and blue had to do with anything but the Panter. In that eager group of children choosing from among the carts I see Nunziatina. She has dropped her father's hand; her white festa hat is pushed back, and its spendour quite forgotten, her auburn curls hand down in confusion about her face as she stoops with shining eyes to hunt for the brilliant blue and yellow of the Tartuca, the "Tortoise", pushing aside the other gay colours with her swift little hands, for she will buy no other colours than those of her own contrada!
Between San Giuseppe and the date in April from which the contrade commence to celebrate in turn Sunday after Suandy, there are but a few weeks; then the interest of all Siena, young and old alike, is centered in the Palio. The races run, there is a lull. The beautiful autumn months pass slowly; the children return to school, and we meet them again in the city streets, wearing their long black aprons, their names embroidered in front in red letters, and carrying their books strapped between two neat little boards, or packed up in shiny black cases. Then the approach of winter is marked by Santa Lucia in December with the fair in the Piazza del Carmine. What may you not buy here for a few soldi! Jockeys on their horses, wonderful jockeys worked by strings who slash out with their whips as the horses are made to gallop; every sort of toy; music-boxes, violins, whistles. It is all noise and gayety among the booths, and there is festa in the the little church of Santa Lucia close by the Piazza. Here have come Elena and Maria this morning with their grandmother and their pretty aunt, both as eager as the children over the purchase of doll's furniture, and of gifts to be carried to the baby brother and sister at home. How like her own little royal princess, Yolande, is Elenina in her dark aristocratic beauty, while Maria in lovely contrast is as fair as any blonde English child. They are typical Sienese children, these sisters, - there are no more loyal lovers than they of the contrade, and they pity me with all their tender litle hearts because I live in a country so dull as not to boast of any. We turn from them to find Primetta standing near us. Gentlest and most careful of little mothers, she has brought all her young family to the fair: Osvaldo and Ernestina hand in hand, wide-eyed and siilent, always rather shy, but never forgetful of the pretty phrases and the courteous ways they have been taught; and Raffaello, all rosy in the crisp December air, with fair curls flying, laughing in reply to everything we ask him, in spite of whispered protests from his well-behaved elder brother; and Argentina, with her bright black eyes and fat red cheeks, hiding her face on her mother's shoulder, but stretching out her hand for a doll or an orange. Then chancing to look behind me I discover Nunziatina, tiptoeing up -like the mischievous fairy she is to blow a trumpet in my ear, and when she is so "found out" her sweet laugh rings clear as a sliver bell through the merry noise and uproar.
So all the little Sienese are at one today in the celebration of this bright festival. But we must not linger too long at the fair, for this is only a part what December holds for the children. The close of the year is at hand, and that means the last and greatest festa of all.
The little Tuscans have have had their gifts already however at the beginning of the year from the Befana, must they not be content now until Epiphany comes in again with the New Year? No so, - the Ceppo is coming, and what may he not bring with him to cittini who are good and obedient? It is quite as important for the little Sienese as for his Saxon cousin of the same age to be circumspect and to look to his conduct in these last days of the year, for the Ceppo will have no more than Santa Claus to do with naughty children.
Now the Piazza where the Palio was run is thronged with busy buyers and sellers; not the children this time, who came to make their won selections on the day of San Giuseppe and the feast of Santa Lucia, it is the mothers on their way from the market in the morning who are buying little carts, but now something that looks like the wicker carro of the tuscan contadini in miniature, and is drawn as the large cart is drawn, by yoked oxen. The floor of the cart is of wood, the wheels are of wood, the oxen are of wood, - all that is left of the old Ceppo or "Tree-trunk", the Sienese Yule-log, which in ages past was dragged in from the forest to be burned at Christmas time. And what is the purpose of the carts? Let us hear it from Nunziatina. She runs the length of the great church of San Domenico, laughing, to meet us, and to tell us something of great importance. The auburn curls so dark in the shadow catch the light from candles as she flies by them, her eyes shining. "The babbo put the Ceppo by the window, and it flew out, and away, away! Does the Ceppo ever fly to America, Signorina? Last year when it flew back to me there were gifts in it from America. Is it a long way across the ocean? But the Ceppo flies so fast!"
And in the evening we wait with Nunziatina "to see what will happen next", for this is our first Ceppo. Now we must hear her new poems. Not "Io son Bébé", which she always sings dancing, and distributing flowers amongst us as she dances, nor even "The Dream of a Little Child, when she makes a pillow of her two hands and leaning her cheek against it closes her eyes in a "dream of gold", and sees the beautiful Blessed Virgin, who speaks to her in caresing Tuscan diminutives. This evening the poems are of Gesù Bambino, for it is His night. She will say them all over tomorrow to Him alone before the Presepio, - the "Crib" - in the convent of San Girolamo, but that will be quite between her and Gesù; now she will say them for us to hear. With all that tender sweetness of one child to another younger than herself, she tells the Divine Babe how much she loves Him: It is so cold and He is but half-clad, poverino! She will do whatever will make Him happiest, whatever He most desires? - and what is that? "You would like me to be a good child?".
The play of her little hands in the next poem makes us see the angels, who while the shepaherds sleep, come down in a long shining row from the winter heavens "begemmed with stars". And when carrying their white lambs, the shepherds reach the manger, with the prettiest of graceful gestures she offers all she has to give to the infant Christ, - her heart. May He make it ""uono e pio"" may He fill it with holy love for Himself.
With a sudden change of expression she turns to her father, - she is trying not to laugh. No long line now, delivered with slow reverence. The quick little verses run on to tell us she jumped out of bed in the cold and dressed so quickly that she pulled on her little stocking "wrongside out" - How did she do it? - the verses ask gaily, - why was she in such haste? Ah, don't you know? A thousnad years ago and more today the Bambino Gesù was born in Bethlehem, so this is festa. And today she will make so many festa promises to the babbo, and for his part what will he do for her? Will he not give her some Torrone? We have often and willingly eaten this delicacy of Siena, and we laugh with her while she claps her hands and dances at the exquisite jest of the unexpected ending and her father laughs too and promises her the Torrone, and even some Panforte as well.
It is growing late, the Ceppo must be almost at the end of his flight; but we beg for some of the old songs, the song of the cobbler with its merry chorus, "Trallaralla lera lera, Trallaralla lera la!"
And then the song of all the trades, when Nunziatina's little fingers imitate the swift motin of the tailor as he sews and cuts, and cuts and sews, the whole day long; of the shoemaker, who taps with his hammer and draws out his thread to a great length, and taps and pulls and pulls and taps; and so on, down to the pastry cook, who kneads and stirs, and stirs and kneads, all the live long day to make those delicious goodies that she loves. And then she cuts and eats, and eats and cuts, an imaginary morsel, shaking all her curls, at us, and signing that she would like to eat so, all day long.
Someone wonders aloud whether after all the Ceppo will come tonight, he always knocks at the door, has anybody heard a knock? Perhaps with the singing - But, oh no! Nunziatina tells us - the Ceppo always makes his knock heard, - it is such a great knock! Eccolo! We all start, and with a cry between delight and terror Nunziatina runs to the Signora Caterina and buries her head against her, laughing, yet afraid to look. The Signora's beautiful silver hair rests for a moment on the red curls as she bends to turn the little face. The door is opened. The hall is very quiet, and in darkness but for one bright spot. There stands the Ceppo ablaze with light; round the front of the car and even on the branching horns of the oxen are lighted candles. In the center of the little car rises a tall green branch on which has been spitted a great apple, and the branch is hung with gifts, the car is laden, with them, while at the back two "thieves" keep guard, flat sticks decked out in curious garments of red and silver paper, with bits of white fur pasted on top in imitation of hair, and burned into the wood most expressive eyes, whose sinister glance justifies the name "thief".
For all the world Nunziatina would not approach that car, - but her mother draws it into the center of the room and then rosy and laughing though still trembling a little, she slips away from the protecting arms and begins to examine it. The gifts are all for her! She is down on the floor unrolling every package, laughing at the time-honoured joke of the bit of coal wrapped in paper, springing up and pushing this away with her foot in pretended fury. On her knees again she finds new treasures. Now she is dancing back and forth with her doll, talking to it, singing to it. We must all kiss it, and she must kiss each of us. How radiant she is! Those little flying feet, the grace of her pretty motions! What could there be more bright and joyous? So with her happy laughter, with her singing and her dancing, sweet Nunziatina like many another child of the old contrade on the same evening celebrates the coming of the Ceppo.