The days leading up to Christmas are undoubtedly the most magical days of the year. Because the atmosphere is filled with waiting and the cold weather of the end of December is warmed by a widespread warmth, that pervades everything.
The streets are lit up, Michael Bublé songs are playing on the radio, houses and shops are decorated. Children write their letters to Santa Claus and passers-by – crossing on the street between one commission and another – wish each other.
Friends exchange gifts and the families gather to think about the Christmas menu: every year they look for something different, “for changing”, but in the end they always fall back on traditional dishes, those that taste of home and never disappoint.
Yes, because Christmas here in Tuscany means tradition and family. Table set, Grandma who wears the apron, the smell of ragù. Briscola, scopa and tombola, chatter and smiles. It means photos of generations compared that will remain in the album of memories forever.
Christmas in our grandparents’ time
And the spirit in which our grandparents spent this festivity was not so different. Of course, they were much poorer, but for Christmas they did not hesitate to put the best dishes on the table: even meat, which they reserved for important occasions.
Capon stew, for example, was one of those recipes that could never be missed on 25th December. With a single chicken, one of those reared in the farmyard, the housewives prepared – in addition to the main one – also the first course: a really tasty broth in which they cooked tortellini.
For dessert, instead, a fixed stop was the grocery in the village (people of Tavarnelle will certainly know the famous “Maria di Barinco”). There you could buy panforte and cavallucci, typical Siena sweets made with candied fruit, nuts and spices such as cinnamon, aniseed and cloves.
After a few hours among genuine food, nursery rhymes and stories, our grandparents returned (after morning Mass) to church. They listened to the poems that the children recited in front of the nativity scene, all dedicated – obviously – to the religious celebration.
A special feature of Christmas in our grandparents’ time was undoubtedly the log: a big piece of wood (usually the one at the base of the tree) which, chosen months in advance and allowed to dry out well, was put into the fireplace on Christmas Eve in front of the family gathered together.
It was left to burn until Boxing Day or even New Year’s Eve or the Epiphany. So that the flames consume it slowly, several tricks were used: the log was greased with pork fat or covered with ashes.
The fire, an element of extraordinary importance for the peasants, on Christmas period took on a sacred value: it was symbolically used to warm the baby Jesus. In fact, the priest was often called to bless the log.
Then, at the end of the festivities, it happened that the ashes left by the burnt log were collected and scattered in the fields: it was a way to propitiate a good harvest, one of the many moments (like Saint Martin and Saint Lucy) in which Christian festivities were linked to peasant tradition.
The evolution of the term “log”
It is from the custom of burning it in the fireplace that, in our area, “log” has come to indicate Christmas Eve, Christmas and, in general, feast days. Chianti people will certainly have heard their Grandma say, as she puts everything and more on the table, that “today is the log“, i.e. “today is a feast day“.
Moreover, this new entity that came to inhabit the house – the log – was linked to the habit of bringing presents to children: humble gifts such as sweets, fruit, wooden toys, rag dolls. “Has the log passed?” was the classic question that Grandpa asked when he saw us holding packages and envelopes. The log was, in short, a sort of Santa Claus ante litteram.
In other areas of Tuscany, instead, the term had (and still has) the meaning of “Christmas gift“. It has its origins in the practice of the boyfriend giving his beloved a present for Christmas, which she would reciprocate on the Epiphany. Or, perhaps, in the “tip” that the owner gave the farmer at the end of the year.
Christmas today in Poggio al Bosco
Today, unfortunately, the custom of burning the log in the fire has been lost. But here in Poggio al Bosco, on Christmas Day, as on all other winter days, the fire will be present: it will light up the old stable, where the calves used to be and where we now gather around the table.
We will enjoy traditional dishes, accompanied by our special occasion wine: Spaziale, a pure Sangiovese, also a symbol of our area. And we will enjoy the company of our loved ones.
Merry Christmas to you all!