Tuesday, 25 December 2012

Holy night in Taormina

We walked up the Corso Umberto around eleven o'clock, it was crowded with people, whole families, individuals walking their dogs romancing couples, old geezers who've seen it all before. The bonfires in the largo Sta Caterina and piazza del Duomo were well alight, shooting sparks up to the waxing moon in a clear night sky. It was a lovely happy atmosphere, with people greeting each other and stopping to chat. Even we did, as we ran into a group of people who'd attended the German Lutheran service earlier, and saw two of the sisters out in the piazza della Duomo, watching proceedings there.

In the Duomo, the half hour before midnight Mass was taken up by a lengthy congregational devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary led by several lay people, with some though not all in the congregation joining in. I didn't recognise the devotional format, but its framework was a strict metre syllables per line. When it was time start the ministerial procession came out of the south door and walked around to the west end in the piazza. To my surprise there was just one cleric, accompanied by a posse of men wearing Knights of Malta copes. It was the Archpriest who welcomed me to the ecumencial service a few weeks ago. He recognised me in the crowd and broke ranks to exchange Christmas greetings. I'm not sure what liturgical role the Knights played in the service, as everything is geared up to lay people running all aspects of the worship, mostly discreetly dressed in black. The choir sang the litrugical parts in Italian, the celebrant on this rare occasion used Latin.

We didn't stay long. It was a special experience to enjoy the whole occasion for a change and not have to get exhausted holding together a celebration which wouldn't finish until half past one. We walked back and found another midnight Mass going on at the Salesian church of San' Giuseppe on the piazza Sant' Agostino. Here, a processon had formed on the balcony at the church entrance with a squad of servers in scarlet cassocks and lacy cottas surrounding a richly vested minister clad in a dalmatic bearing the image of the Christchild. Before them, as they entered the church walked a man in traditional Sicilian costume playing the bagpipes. When I walk up to Castelmole, a lone piper was practicing in one of the narrow back lanes, it was an enticing reminder of the island's strong folk culture.

The celebrant received the bambino, then handed it to a robed server who placed it in a prominent position in front of Joseph and Mary in the presepio. The entire Baroque altarpiece was covered with a brightly painted 'Bethlehem' scene with windows in it containing statues of the various characters of the biblical stories., like a giant Advent calendar. I've never seen anything quite like it. This church was packed, as was the Duomo, with many more people outside. There was no midnight Mass at Sta Caterina, only the bonfire outside. Does this suggest that there are only two clergy available for duty at Christmas in this busy holiday town? Just like Britain?

We reached home at half past midnight, and before we went to bed, I spent half an hour cutting the stones from some soft oily black olives to turn them into a tapenade with crushed garlic to coat my portion of roast chicken for our festive lunch. An altogether different experience of Christams Eve to savour this year.

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