Drom the woods of the Gran Sasso to a small square in a mountain village, gesture by gesture, man celebrates the encounter of wood and fire. In Nerito di Crognaleto, on the morning of Christmas Eve, with meticulous care, patience and constructive knowledge inherited from the elderly, a group of men collocate logs and branches of different sizes around a circular base on the ground, arranged for the occasion. The bonfire is intended to illuminate and warm the community until Epiphany, since at dusk it will be lit from the particular opening, made during the final stages of the erection of the structure. For two long cold weeks this will be a place of meetings, exchange and recollection.
The Nerito Christmas fire is one of a myriad of rituals marked by the lighting of fires in the countryside or in the mountains, in relation to particular calendrical celebrations such as the solstices and the confluence, later made by Christianity, with religious feasts and with the Marian devotion and that of some saints: Saint Anthony the Abbot, John the Baptist, Saint Joseph, Saint Thomas and many others.
Local assumptions and relevant discussions, especially in recent times, tend to trace the origins of fire rituals to remote pre-Christian times, according to a frequent habit of highlighting the antiquity of the rites so as to underline their importance through a long historical continuity. However, the tales of the elderly seem to disagree, by closely linking the use of fire on Christmas Eve with the events of the birth of Christ, the expectation of His arrival and the need, in such circumstances, to reunite the community around a significant ritual action, which arises from peaceful cooperation and sharing and from the opportunity to gather around a catalyst event. The fire thus serves to warm the birth of Jesus, and to hold our attention on this prodigious event of salvation until Epiphany, a manifestation of the divinity of Christ on the arrival of the Magi but also the anniversary of His baptism in the Jordan River.
The male community of the village rallies round for the preparation of a great fire, the construction of which seems to be inspired by the art of making charcoal kilns, formerly much practiced in the surrounding woods. In fact, the Nerito bonfire influenced by the historical presence of woodsmen, is created on a circular base, through the juxtaposition of logs and branches which get gradually smaller, determining the characteristic conical shape. The Christmas fire exalts the social dimension of the rite, founded on permanent cooperation from the days that precede the construction, when it is necessary to collect a large quantity of wood (about 150 quintals), to the days after the fire has been lit when it must be constantly stoked (with about a further 200 quintals) until it is extinguished on 6th January.
In the past the fire was smaller, and every family contributed a quantity of wood which they could spare from their personal stack; similarly, on the days after the fire had been lit, everyone was required to bring some logs for stoking the collective bonfire. Over the last few years mechanical equipment has simplified some of the construction phases, also making it possible to erect a bonfire of more impressive size. Moreover, it is customary to complete the creation of the bonfire by decorating the front of it with logs which have been sculpted and decorated with a chainsaw and a wood burning tool.
On Christmas Eve, when it is already dark, the bonfire is lit after the blessing of the priest. According to the tradition handed down in the village, the action is performed by the oldest villager, as a sign of respect and continuity of the ritual and the community, or by figures of particular importance designated from time to time. In the warm glow of the fire, the villagers spend their evenings and nights in the company of their neighbours and family members, chatting and storytelling, as if they were in front of a giant fireplace.
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The construction of the ignition opening
phases of construction of a bonfire ignition opening.
Nerito di Crognaleto (TE), 24 December 2017.
Video footage by Stefano Saverioni,
Don Nicola Jobbi Study Center Archive/Bambun.
Cultural transmission and preservation
The practice appears to be alive and deeply-felt, despite the demographic decline that Nerito di Crognaleto has undergone in the last fifty years, particularly as a result of the double seismic sequence of 2009 and 2016-2017. Volunteers working with the local pro-loco association and coordinated by Antonio Filipponi, cooperate with passion and dedication in building the bonfire, an activity which takes an entire day in the assembly phase and also involves the laborious task of collecting the wood necessary to build the initial structure and then feed the fire until it is extinguished on 6th January.
The volunteers are an exclusively male group, formed by people from about twenty to forty years old, in part linked by family relationships. The erection of the bonfire and the various phases of construction are, however, closely monitored by the elderly; they stop as they pass through the square or remain nearby for the duration of the construction, even helping in some particular operations such as finding, transporting and raising the beam or preparing the combustion furnace and the top layer of logs.
A sizable number of people come to see the fire being lit in the evening and even on the following days, up to Epiphany, the square is always full, and the fire is surrounded by people, in particular when the Pro-loco association organizes some events to foster the presence of both villagers and visitors. Over the years, local associations have also promoted initiatives to publicise the event and have cooperated in the production of a documentary made by the regional office of the RAI state television company.
The complex construction techniques have been handed down but also altered and improved, for example by Elio Cenci’s design in 1966 which moved the ignition opening further up. The supply of wood is today facilitated by mechanical means and by the continuity of the presence in the territory of woodcutters and working forestry firms, although in much smaller numbers compared to the past.