At the end of April we welcomed two lovely ladies, Lissa and Debra, from the USA. This was to be their first trip to this area of Italy and Lissa was keen to visit her ancestral home of her family, namely Pastena. Pastena is a small but picturesque medieval village which is in the province of Frosinone and belongs to the ancient region of Ciociaria.
As Lissa and Debra didn’t have a car we offered to drive them to Pastena, which is along an interesting route, passing through Fondi and then heading inland towards Lenola and beyond. Finally we reached the verdant plain of Pastena surrounded by hills and mountains. Here the soil is rich and fertile thus agriculture has always been the mainstay of the economy in these parts.
As we approached Pastena we saw a hill which at its peak has modern sculptures representing the patron saints of the town, Sant’Elena and San Sinforo.
Lissa first wanted to call in at Pastena’s Register Office or Anagrafe in the Town Hall.
We were received by the registrar who seemed to be rather flustered and busy, and he insisted that he did not have time to look through the records to try and find out more about Lissa’s ancestors. However he did take details from her and promised to look for them during the next few days. Feeling slightly deflated we went for a stroll around the old town.
Close to the Town Hall is a museum – “Il Museo della Civiltà Contadina e dell’Ulivo” or Museum of Country Life and Olive Cultivation.This is housed in a palazzo which was once the home and an ancient olive m of the Trani family. Among the interesting exhibits are the original old mill-stone and press, tools related to olive farming, tilling the soil, animal husbandry, wine making, cheese making, basket making, spinning and weaving of linen. Also there are examples of traditional clothes, musical instruments and general domestic items of everyday Pastena life in times gone by.
Lissa also wanted the visit Pastena’s cemetery which was situated a little way out of town. She was hoping to find some of her ancestors’ graves.
We went back into Pastena to wander through the characteristic Medieval centre. At the highest point of the village is the main square and the church of Santa Maria Maggiore. On the facade are two niches which house images of the patron saints of the town.
We noticed that there were festive lights mounted throughout the town. We learned that the following day was the Feast of “Il Maggio” or “la Festa del’Albero della Cuccagna” -a festival to celebrate the coming of Spring. We soon made plans to return the following day, with our friends Pat and Melinda, to see the celebrations for ourselves.
On the 15th April the local men go out into the woods to choose the best tall straight cypress tree. Once this has been selected a cross is carved out of the bark mark it. At sunrise on the morning of 30th April many of the local men folk will gather around the chosen tree for a traditional ceremony where the parish priest recites prayers. The master of ceremonies takes the axe and makes the first cuts into the tree, in the presence of the calf, with each of the participants taking their turn to wield the axe. The actual felling of the tree is marked by gun shots and a drum roll. The tree is then cleaned of the bark and branches etc.
There follows a ritual “funeral” procession for “the tree of sacrifice” that has been taken from the “sacred forest”. Slowly but surely it is hauled up to the village with the help of a numerous pairs of strong oxen, lead by the sacred calf.
During the long procession loud firework were periodically set off, and unnervingly groups of hunters shot rounds from their rifles and shotguns into the air.
We then walked uphill back towards the town. As we entered the square in front of the town hall we were spotted by the register who eagerly tried to flag us down. He told Lissa he had looked in the registers and had found several more generations of Lissa’s family. He lead us into his office where he handed over the paperwork. Lissa was happy and we were so pleased for her. We took a photo of the Registrar, Lissa and Debra to remember this very special day.
A little more about the “Il Maggio” festivities ….
On the 1st May the tree is cleaned in the main square, in front of the church of Santa Maria Maggiore. The top of the tall tree trunk is adorned with May flowers of broom. A hole is prepared and then the men work together using ropes to gradually winch the tree trunk into an upright position.
On the 3rd May, on the feast day of the Santissima Santa Croce, when the statue of Sant’ Elena on her throne is taken from the church and carried around all the districts of the town followed by a solemn procession.
Typically the womenfolk have previously prepared a type of sweet bread / doughnut in the shape of a decorated ring called a Ciambellone, these are carried during the procession as a symbol of religious devotion. The procession is accompanied by ceremonial gunfire.
Later in the day the tree trunk is raised into position in the main square, having been covered in grease. This is known as the “albero della cuccagna”. Then there is a competition amongst the young men of the village, when they attempt to scale the slippery pole. At the top there are prizes for the successful climbers. In the evening there are more celebrations of musical entertainment and fireworks.
The tree trunk remains in place in the square until September, when it is cut down and distributed as firewood to the local inhabitants of Pastena.
All photos by me © Louise Shapcott
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