Of Cabbages and Kings – The Night of the Lanterns

I had hoped to bring you a fresh-from-the-experience account of our local Cabbage Festival, which took place this past weekend, but ill health and miserable weather kept me indoors for most of the weekend. So instead, I shall tell you about my first-ever experience of this evocative festival. First, a little background info. Montalto Dora is a little village in the North of Piedmont. Like many Italian villages, it has adopted the custom of an annual food festival in an attempt to boost its local economy and fill the coffers. This area used to be farming land and is well known for the beautiful savoy cabbages it produced, so when planning a food festival, that was the perfect choice.

My first experience of “The night of the Lanterns” was soon after I joined my husband in our new flat. I arrived on the 28th of October and the festival took place towards the end of November that year. At that time, “The night of the Lanterns” was a huge procession that wound its way through the village on a circular route. Now, due to logistical problems, they have a static display in the car park next to the village church – not half as nice as the procession. All the local villages took part that year, proudly displaying a wooden banner with the name of the village in front of their float or floats. Every float portrayed some aspect of life in the past. Participants proudly wore clothes their great grandparents would have worn, and aside from the lanterns hung on the carts, almost everyone who was walking in the procession carried a lantern.

The procession started at nine in the evening, but we were too excited to wait, so we strolled out early to investigate. The cold, crisp November air made our noses tingle as we walked out of our driveway into yesteryear. All along our street, heavy wooden carts were lined up, tractors ready to pull them along. Some had horses, donkeys, sheep and goats, and a dairy farmer had brought a few cows along too! A whispy mist rolled in and the air was filled with excited voices. “Ciao Giusseppe!” “Ciao Anna!” Bells jangled on horses bridles as we walked up the road.

Each village tried to choose a theme reflecting the nature of the village. One portrayed logging, with freshly cut trees and two men sawing off logs with a two-man saw. Impressive! Another showed the maize growing process, from plant to cornmeal. Implements must have been sourced from grandparents storerooms. Women carried baskets on their backs filled with corn cobs. Other women walked along knitting socks, barely looking at their flying fingers while chatting continuously to their neighbours.

We eventually found a corner vantage point where we could watch the procession from some stairs, thus gaining the advantage of height. The floats moved slowly by, as people in the crowd called out to friends or made comments for all to hear. A “school” rolled by: two rows of desks with freshly scrubbed scholars in old-fashioned garb and a severe looking school ma’am with a frighteningly large pair of glasses and a threatening ruler. “Have they been good?” shouted an onlooker. “Oh yes,” replied the teacher. “They are all very good.” Every child on the float beamed!

Ancient tractors rolled slowly by, their motors thumping lazily and loudly. A herd of cows followed, their cowbells ringing around their garlanded necks, herdsmen shouting gruffly and waving long sticks to keep them in line. Here, a float portrayed mushroom hunting, the famous porcini mushrooms “planted” in the leafy back of a cart. There, a craftsman cut roof tiles from stone gathered from the mountainside. A flock of goats and sheep followed, and then a cart where cheese was being made. And all the while, the trumpets and trombones from every town band thrilled the ear with the music of their lives.

One of my favourite floats had to be the depiction of raising a pig – from piglet to pork sausage. Yes, it was a little gory, but that was life in those days. The planners had thought of everything. Three carts were linked together and pulled by an enormous tractor. On the first cart was a pig pen with mother and piglets, and of course the proud farmer! The second cart had a slaughtered pig hanging and a group of men making various pork products. Not just depicting them  – really making them! On the third cart was a happy family cooking the sausages and polenta (grits) and sitting down to a meal.  Believe it or not, there was an open fire on that cart and a wood stove!  “These Romans are crazy!” I thought, but I loved every moment of that procession. And I still love every moment of my life with these crazy Italians around me.

I love their zest for life, and their pride in their roots. I love the way music accompanies every festival. Almost every village has its resident band, and they proudly accompany the floats and processions. I love the way history seems to rise from the cobbles and seep from the walls.

Sadly, it was those huge floats that led to the end of the procession. For a couple of years there was a problem when some of the carts couldn’t get round the sharp corner of the main road without getting stuck, leading to a backing up problem (fine for people, but not so good for impatient and nervous cows!) and frayed nerves while people tried to release the stuck floats. Eventually the powers that be decided that it would be safer and less stressful to arrange a static exhibition of life in yesteryear, and so a very special part of the Cabbage festival was changed forever. I will never forget that first procession though, and often visit that night in my dreams and memories.

Foto di gruppo nello stand dei magnin

Here’s a link to a beautiful montage of photos from this year’s static exhibition.    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4ORk6o8pa8Q

Doesn’t it make you want to come and visit?