Home | Valente and DiRenzo Family History - Italian Christmas Eve and More Shepherds

Christmas Eve and More Shepherds

On this page ...

Note: this page supplements The Christmas Zampognaro ("Bagpipe player"). That page tells the story of the shepherds who used to migrate with their sheep from Abruzzo to Puglia each year and play the bagpipes at Christmas.

Christmas Eve in Gambatesa
and Camden, New Jersey -
Notes about Food

Gambatesa on the map of Italy, 2 KB
Gambatesa is a village in central southern Italy between Naples and Rome.

In Gambatesa the people do not eat meat on Christmas Eve (la vigilia di Natale). They eat spaghetti with fish (salt and fresh cod) and shellfish and eel (anguilla, from the river; eel is a very fatty fish so first it rendered in water, then afterwards it is cooked in sugo, and the longer it cooks the more strongly it flavors the crushed tomatoes). Then they go to Mass at midnight, the older people too, unless it is too cold for them. They have turkey on Christmas Day.

In Camden, Nunziata DiRenzo only made spaghetti with bread crumbs, spaghetti with tuna, and spaghetti with anchovy, for Christmas Eve. Before the family moved to Mickle Street, she also used to make baccalà for her husband Giovanni Valente. They did not have the "seven fishes"; there was no special number of fishes.

But later in America, when the children began working and the family was not so poor, the children introduced the custom of seven different kinds of fishes in seven different serving bowls. Most of the fishes were in sauces for spaghetti, but they were not mixed together. It was a light meal. Then the young people would go to Midnight Mass. "Usually for Christmas Day we ate pasta; but my mother once made a duck, and we sometimes had chicken. But my mother used to get all sorts of special things -- chestnuts, tangerines, hazelnuts, Brazil nuts."

Vittoria remembered that her mother used get chestnuts in and roast them for Christmas; they always had a big Christmas dinner "even in the 1930s when things were really bad". There were many people in the streets during Christmastime on Broadway; because people did not have automobiles they walked everywhere in Camden. There were two five-and-tens at different ends of Broadway they used to shop in. Vittoria said they as children had much more freedom in those days than their own children were ever to have.

There was always anisette, also amaretto and sweet vermouth, even during Prohibition when Nunziata DiRenzo used to buy ethyl alcohol from a bootlegger and flavor it herself. Nunziata tested the alcohol for purity in her kitchen before buying it by pouring some into a spoon and holding a match to it.

One of the Christmas Eve dishes was always spaghetti with tuna in an unseasoned tomato sauce. This was also eaten during the fasting days of Lent. Another sauce for the spaghetti was made with just anchovies and oil, and it was just referred to as alicc' (The Italian word alice means "anchovy").

For Christmas Eve in Gambatesa, a special spaghetti sauce (of sorts) with dry bread crumbs, chopped walnuts and white raisins is made. This is what Carmelina ("Millie") Valente learned from her mother:

Fry coarse bread crumbs in enough oil (so that they do not burn) with two bay leaves, and then drain the crumbs on paper towels and let them get cold; do not save the bay leaves. To serve, add white raisins and chopped walnuts with a little sugar dissolved in some water from cooking the spaghetti. Use the kind of spaghetti you like.

Some people toast the walnuts, but Nunziata DiRenzo did not. Unlike the other sauces eaten with spaghetti on Christmas Eve, this sauce is dry and cold and sweet. In dialect it is called a mollig' (in Italian la mollica, "the soft inner part of a roll or loaf of bread", "the crumb", "bread crumbs").

"Millie" remembered that her mother also used to make an unsweetened bread/biscuit for dipping in wine. It was shaped like a huge tarallo and boiled like one. It was slashed all around its outer middle and opened up as it cooked. Then it was baked in the oven and afterwards cut into slices. It was not crisp all the way through. Pasqualina DiRenzo's daughter Filomena remembered this biscuit, that it was not soft inside and that it was shaped like a very big tarallo with a hole in the middle, about the size across of two fists; it was slashed around the outside middle and put into boiling water, and then baked; for eating, it was broken up by hand and dipped into wine, which was delicious (In Gambatesa these biscuits are called Biscotti con le uova). Nunziata DiRenzo also used to make biscotti and taralli.

Vittoria Valente said: "At Christmas we used to play Lotto. My father would call the numbers, [dramatically] 'Number 70 - the king's head'. He didn't say that, but he would make up something for every number." They played for pennies; "I don't think we knew much about nickels and dimes. This was during Christmas week. Then on Christmas Day my mother would put everything away and we wouldn't play cards again until next year. Because we had to go to school."

The children's oldest brother Nicola Valente told them that if they didn't want to go to school, he would put straw on the floor and they could be little donkeys.

Giovanni Valente would say, "You gotta go to school, grandpop", and Nunziata DiRenzo would say, "You gotta eat, grandmom." The grandchildren never understood why their grandparents called them "grandmom" and "grandpop". But Angelo Abiuso wrote to me:

In Gambatesa he would say: "Su, a nonno, devi andare a scuola." It is a strange way to talk they use at Gambatesa. "Su, mangia a nonna." It is like: "Eat, please do it for me (grandmom), do it for grandmom."

For one Christmas Day I remember that my grandmother made "gabadales", as her younger children used to call them; the Italian is cavatelli. She used only flour and water (She always used unbleached flour) to make these, and served them in a thick tomato gravy (i.e. one in which the meat for the meal -- sausage, ribs, meatballs, maybe chicken, pigs' feet -- had been cooked by stewing in a deep pot, in dialect u sug or in Italian il sugo, or more specifically u sug da carn' (Italian il sugo della carne) to make clear that it is the thick tomato gravy in which meat has been cooked). She did not make them very often when she got older, because it was a lot of work because cavatelli were entirely made by hand, without a machine. (We were maybe forty people that Christmas Day, and probably no one ate only one bowl of homemade macaroni.) But when she made them she would roll her dough out on an old-fashioned board as large as a table-top, rolling and rolling it until it was quite thin; she used a rolling pin (u lainatore) the length of an arm, but light and not thick. Then she would slice the dough into lengths, lay the lengths on top of one another, and then quickly quickly cut them into cavatelli. They would be dropped into a deep pot of boiling water until they rose to the top and were removed.

Christmas Eve was very important on Berkley Street. As Nicholas Valente (1916-2000) remembered, everyone had to be home by 6 PM no matter what. They had the meal of the seven fishes, and then they played Lotto for pennies; Giovanni Valente used to call the numbers, which irritated "the girls" (Nicholas's sisters, of whom there were eventually seven) because he had a story for every number. (Angelo Abiuso's grandfather Francesco Valente used to say things like this too, but Angelo was too young to understand their meaning: "Maybe the explanation is in what is called in Napoli la smorfia napoletana. There is an animal or an object for every number and in Napoli people play lotteria giving numbers to the things they dream." In Camden also people in those days played the illegal lottery, "the numbers", even if they had only a penny to spare for wagering.) They always had dried figs, torrone, and chestnuts on Christmas Eve.

Of course Italian people -- and poor people -- did not celebrate Christmas with Christmas trees, and so they did not have Christmas trees at 337 Berkley Street when the oldest children were little. But Nunziata DiRenzo made special food for Christmas and one year, her daughter Vittoria remembered, Nunziata made a velvet dress for Vittoria and her doll. But Louis Valente developed heart disease when he was seven or a few years older, and after that things got poorer and poorer on Berkley Street.

At 520 Mickle Street, however, with the older children working, they did have Christmas trees and presents, like other Americans did. Of the eleven Valente children, those who grew up on Berkley Street -- "where we had nothing" -- and those who grew up on Mickle Street came from different worlds, and because of this they did not always understand each other.

(Nunziata DiRenzo never made "lasagna" until about 1943; it wasn't one of the dishes that came from Gambatesa; it was learned from other Italians in America. Later it was sometimes made by someone for the mid-day meal on Christmas Day; it was the simpler kind made by southern Italians with only sheets of pasta, tomato sauce, slices of mozzarella -- in America, made with cows' milk and perhaps for that reason called a scamoz' (Italian: scamorza) by Nunziata, and ricotta mixed with a very little sugar.)

1939 was the first year the family had a Christmas tree and presents -- both because their brother Louis Valente (1919-1950) bought them. Despite his illness he had a job that year (maybe driving a truck locally). That was the last Christmas on Berkley Street. On Mickle Street they always had Christmas trees and when everyone started working (the younger ones part-time, of course) they all bought each other presents (often from Woolworth's 5 and 10¢ store, even last minute on Christmas Eve). The Salvation Army brass band played every Saturday evening at Broadway and Mickle "when we first moved to Mickle Street".

Giovanni Valente used to give everyone who was present at Christmas a small box containing the torrone he had bought. Because that was the tradition in Gambatesa. Torrone was very important in Gambatesa just for Christmas. The torrone was a hard, brittle nougat made of egg whites, honey, sugar and roasted almonds, flavored with either arancia or vaniglia or limone ("orange or vanilla or lemon"), baked between very thin white sheets resembling rice paper and then sliced into rectangles and put into little boxes. (The soft nougat often sold today does not have a lot in common with the old, hard kind. Of the torrone Robert Angelo has tasted in America, the Perugina brand is the most like what Giovanni used to give everyone.)

Giovanni Valente also used to give the grandchildren other exotic things at Christmas, like $2 bills, which we never saw because no one used them, and $1 bill Silver Certificates: This certifies that there is on deposit in the treasury of the United States of America one dollar in silver payable to the bearer on demand, which are no longer honored.

Note: so far as I know, no one knows the origin of the seven fishes tradition. It is not universal in Italy. For example in Gambatesa there is no special number of fishes to be eaten, and in our family in America we don't worry about the specific number (For example for Christmas Eve 2004, there were four types of fish).

None of us here knows the origin of the tradition of eating only fish on Christmas Eve. It's just what we do. However, as to why fish is eaten, there is this: that Advent is a time of penance (as is Lent), a time when it is or used to be forbidden by the Church for other types of animal flesh to be eaten.

"Italian Rum Cake" (Pizza Dolce)

Not related to Christmas, but something else we used to have at this time of year was "Italian Rum Cake", because we had many birthdays in December.

The cake that was called "Italian Rum Cake" in Camden, bought from the bakery, usually for birthdays, is called Pizza Dolce in Gambatesa -- (remember that pizza means "cake" as well as "pie" in Molise) -- and is served at weddings (It can be made at home). The outside of the cake is covered with whipped cream and then the sides are dusted with very thinly sliced almonds. Inside, from top to bottom, there is a layer of moist white cake, a layer of Italian pastry cream flavored with rum, another layer of moist white cake, a layer of chocolate flavored Italian pastry cream, and finally a layer of moist white cake.

The Torrone eaten in Gambatesa,
by Angelo Abiuso (Geneva)

Sperlari Hazelnut Torrone montage, 26 KB
Sperlari - Classico alla nocciola

Torrone is very important in Gambatesa. My mother's friend Maria Simeone (and my grandfather too) used to send us torrone years after my parents had left Italy, just for Christmas. Because that was the tradition in Gambatesa.

The brand name of the torrone they eat in Gambatesa is Sperlari. I went to an Italian grocery store in Geneva today, and the man said, "One year I had some Sperlari Torrone, but nobody wanted it. So now I have another one from Perugia which is not the same." And I said, "I'm sorry, I'm just looking for the Sperlari."

Sperlari Torrone is made in Cremona. the ingredients according to the box are: Nocciole (Hazel-nuts) (45%); sciroppo di glucosio-fruttosio (glucose-fructose syrup); zucchero (sugar); miele (honey); ostie (fecola di patate, acqua, olio vegetale) (wafers (potato starch, water, vegetable oil)); albume (egg white); aromi (flavours).

For Christmas 2005, Angelo found Sperlari Torrone being sold at Geneva's street market (Le marché) by Americo Cipriano; he and his wife are from Naples. And Angelo sent some to Camden.

From The Seed Beneath the Snow
by Ignazio Silone

The stone walls in the fields enclosed the folds where sheep grazed in summer; now, he explained to Faustina, the flocks were wintering in Apulia. Beside a gray stone the shepherds set up their straw hut, at the door they hung an image of their patron saint, just outside they milked the ewes, built a fire, cooked the milk and made wicker baskets to serve as molds for the cheese. Under that clump of rocks there might in summer be a tiny spring, with the surrounding earth soft, damp and blanketed with tender grass. But you must watch out, Faustina, the water from the spring is too cold for the sheep; if they drink it they are certain to lose their wind; they must be led to drink at some valley stream exposed to the sunlight.

The landscape was far from gay; even in summer the mountains are bleak; it is a miracle that the sheep manage to find enough to eat; the earth is thin, dry and stony; the sparse vegetation among the stones quickly yellows as if it were burned by an underground fire; caves and holes in the ground draw off all the water. In times gone by this region was given over to hermits but now there is no other pasture for the sheep; they cannot go down to the coastal rivers; this is the country where they are born; in winter they go to Apulia in the south but in summer they must come back here. Even now beneath the snow were sprouting for their benefit the tiny hard seeds of rosemary and thyme.

Source: translated by Frances Frenaye (1942), Chapter Eight.

Background Stories:
Bagpipes and Mangers

Warning: some or most of this is conjecture -- i.e. my trying to make sense of things -- and may be wrong. It has been rewritten many times.

I read in a story years ago that Abruzzesi shepherds (pastori) used to come to Rome at Christmas to play their bagpipes (zampogne). And I also read that bagpipes were played in the Holy Land, made by the shepherds there from reeds and animal skins. Did the shepherds play bagpipes for the Holy Family that first Christmas in Bethlehem? St. Luke does not mention it. Maybe there is no relationship.

Traditional Italian presepi (sing. presepio or presepe) ("manger scenes") include a bagpipe player (zampognaro: the Christmas bagpipers visit Gambatesa) and other shepherds and their sheep. (But the sheep did not go to Rome with the zampognari; the sheep were stabled in the southern plains during the winter). Although Mary and Joseph wear biblical robes, the zampognaro is dressed as a poor Italian shepherd, and the music he plays is old songs from the mountains of Abruzzo. In the mountains the shepherds played bagpipes to herd their sheep and to drive away wolves (bagpipes can be quite loud). So maybe there is no relationship.

Who would be better than poor shepherds to comfort the Holy Child with their music, the child who had chosen shepherds to be the first to know of his birth and who was born into the same poverty as they were:

Tu scendi dalle stelle ... E vieni in una grotta al freddo al gelo ... Ti vedo qui tremar ... mancano panni e fuoco ("You descend from the stars ... And you come to a grotto [Note 1], to the cold and ice.... I see you shiver here ... without clothing and a fire") [Note 2]

And the darkness has not extinguished it ... Or does not know it

It is a cold night, a very cold night. The bitter north wind is blowing and the stars are shining outside. Hark! don't you hear some One outside in the cold, knocking at your hearts, saying, "Let Me in! Let Me in!" Will you not take Him in and warm Him with the fire of your love? [Note 3]

During the 13th century presepi ("Nativity scenes") using carved or clay figures were first set up in churches at Christmas time. Traditionally this practice is traced back to St. Francis of Assisi. And later more modest presepi were set up in Italian homes. (But not in all homes and not until many centuries later. There was little light, usually only from the doorway, or comfort, other than the hearth, in the homes of the poor of southern Italy.)

The Gospel according to Luke 2.7 says that "And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him up in swaddling clothes", which was the practice of the poor up to the middle of the 20th Century, but the infant Jesus in the manger is not presented that way, but rather with His arms outstretched as a prefigurement of His crucifixion on the cross.

In the former Kingdom of the Two Sicilies -- the capital of which at that time was Naples -- the building of presepi as an art form was encouraged by the Bourbon court. And still in Naples at Christmas, Via San Gregorio Armeno is devoted to Nativity scenes, and thousands of visitors go to see them. This via is only about 15 feet wide, and it is already closed to traffic, but at Christmastime so many people go there to see the Nativity scenes and to shop that the streets for pedestrians have to be made one-way from the middle of December through the 6th of January. Unlike our small plaster zampognaro, the Neapolitan figures are not mass-produced for the masses.

Note 1: The Italian word grotta means "cave" or "grotto", and in this case "stable", because in mountainous places like Italy Italy animals were often sheltered in caves.

Presepe is a variation of the word presepio. Both forms come from the Latin word praesepe which means an enclosure of any kind, such as an enclosure for animals ("stable") where the animals are fed from a trough ("manger"). The Holy Infant was placed in a feed box with straw; there is no crib; there is no roof for human beings over his head. The poorest shepherds were naked under their sheepskin cloaks. (In Camden a poor family buried their baby who had died in an Italian macaroni box.) "Poor" means that they had nothing.

But why a "grotto"? The present town of Bethlehem lies on two hills. The western hill is the town where Joseph took Mary for the census, but on the eastern hill is the "Grotto of the Nativity", by a very long-standing tradition the place of Christ's birth. So, according to this tradition, because there was no room for them in the inn, they left the town and went to a cave (which was used as a stable) in the eastern hill. (See "Crib" [Latin praesepe, praesepium] in The Catholic Encyclopedia, 1908.) [BACK]

Note 2: The Christmas song "Tu scendi dalle stelle" was written by Saint Alphonsus Liguori (1696-1787) in the town of Nola (near Naples). St. Alphonsus founded the Redemptorist congregation of monks to preach practical (not literary or theoretical) sermons to the poor of the countryside of the Kingdom of Naples and beyond.

"Tu scendi dalle stelle" is an Italian pastorella, music that suggests the countryside -- where the shepherd, il pastore, watches over his sheep -- on Christmas Eve. It is, therefore, "pastoral music" in two senses, the second being that of il buon pastore ("I am the good shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep"). Another well-known pastorella is the Christmas Concerto by Arcangelo Corelli fatto per la notte di Natale ("composed for the night of Christmas"). [BACK]

Note 3: from the memory of "one who was present" 20 November 1869 at St. Columba's Church, London, when Stanton was Missioner, quoted in George W.E. Russell, Arthur Stanton: a memoir (1917), iii, p. 110 [p. 109]. [BACK]

Below is the entire Christmas Eve story. It is very short.

The Gospel According to St. Luke

Chapter 2
The birth of Christ ...

1 And it came to pass, that in those days there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that the whole world should be enrolled.
2 This enrolling was first made by Cyrinus, the governor of Syria.
3 And all went to be enrolled, every one into his own city.
4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem: because he was of the house and family of David,
5 To be enrolled with Mary his espoused wife, who was with child.
6 And it came to pass, that when they were there, her days were accomplished, that she should be delivered.
7 And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him up in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.
8 And there were in the same country shepherds watching, and keeping the night watches over their flock.
9 And behold an angel of the Lord stood by them, and the brightness of God shone round about them; and they feared with a great fear.
10 And the angel said to them: Fear not; for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, that shall be to all the people:
11 For, this day, is born to you a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord, in the city of David.
12 And this shall be a sign unto you. You shall find the infant wrapped in swaddling clothes, and laid in a manger.
13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly army, praising God, and saying:
14 Glory to God in the highest; and on earth peace to men of good will.
15 And it came to pass, after the angel departed from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another: Let us go over to Bethlehem, and let us see this word that is come to pass, which the Lord hath shewed to us.
16 And they came with haste; and they found Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in the manger.
17 And seeing, they understood of the word that had been spoken to them concerning this child.
18 And all that heard, wondered; and at those things that were told them by the shepherds.
19 But Mary kept all these words, pondering them in her heart.
20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God, for all the things they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.

Douay-Rheims Version

Pope Benedict XVI, 24-25 December 2011

The pope said he was sorry that a commercial celebration has increasingly obscured the simplicity of the message of Jesus' birth, which Christmas celebrates:

Let us ask the Lord to help us see through the superficial glitter of this season, and to discover behind it the child in the stable in Bethlehem ...

In his homily for Christmas Eve Pope Francis I speaks of "... in the simplicity of the stable" and the poverty of the shepherds and of ourselves.

Mass on Christmas Day

There are three Masses on Christmas Day. The first begins at midnight on Christmas Eve. It is called "Angels' Mass" after the angels who announced the birth of Christ to the shepherds. The second Mass is called "Shepherds' Mass", after the shepherds who on hearing the announcement were the first to visit the Holy Infant. In Poland, however, the first Mass is called "Shepherds' Mass" (Pasterka).

Also in Poland there is the tradition of making "jaselka ("the Nativity scene") which is an older word, or szopka (crib; literally, "a little shed"), a later word used since the 19th century". This custom, which began "in Italy in the early Middle Ages and spread all over Europe ... was brought to Poland by Franciscan monks who arrived there in the 13th century". Source for this paragraph: the Web page Szopki Krakowskie ("Krakow Cribs") (< krakow.zaprasza.eu/szopki/ang.htm >) as it was in December 2008.

The URL of this Web page: https://www.roangelo.net/valente/zamppend.html
Last revised: 21 December 2019 : 2019-12-21 and 25 December 2008 by Robert [Wesley] Angelo.

Back to top of page

Home | Site Map | Site Search | Valente and DiRenzo Family History - More Village History Background