[Issue #8, Fall 2002]
Palio del Viccio and the Festival of St. Nicholas
From Aunt Pig of Puglia: Ricordi de La Familia Ferri
Besides Christmas, there were a few other major celebrations without which
my family could and would not do. With the exception of my father and grandfather,
everyone waited with bated breath for February 16th and May 8th.
On these two glorious days, we went into Bari, the larger, adjoining city,
for two amazing Pugliese festivals. The one in February was called Palio
del Viccio and mainly consisted of ten guys on horses trying to tilt at
a water bag hung high up on a pole. Whoever hit it and broke the bag, got
the viccio -- the turkey!
This particular festival had enormous appeal for Rocco and Stephano, who
had once almost managed to rent a horse for a few months before the
contest and had almost gotten to practice tilting at an old flour
sack filled with wet leaves.
Though they'd never done either of these two things, they talked about the
particular challenges and nuances of the "sport" as though they'd
been brought up in a kind of Olympic village training camp for water-bag
breaking, and had won about four thousand turkeys in the course of their
The real fun of this festival was hearing them criticize every movement
made by the ten supple and extremely graceful young men who were actually
Every year there came the moment when my mother, having taken all she could
of her brothers' carping braggadocio, would turn to them ritualistically
in the middle of the crazy, cheering crowd and yell at the top of her voice:
"Shut up, already! I've had it with you. You couldn't win a goddamn
turkey if the only water bag you had to hit was under your asses in a chair,
and all you had to do was sit down hard. You'd miss it, you understand what
I'm saying? You'd miss it."
"No, we wouldn't," Stephano would yell back, oblivious to how
ridiculous his retort made him seem.
"Oh yes, yes you would," my mother would scream in turn.
"No, I don't think we would," Rocco would add, furthering the
ludicrousness of it all.
Whatever they said, however, was just great. The crowded day with its swirling
color, food, music, its chivalric echoes of a medieval past, and the gorgeous
bodies of the men and horses never failed to please our hearts' thirst for
Standing there in the crowd, clutching my beloved Aunt Ciara's hand on one
side and my sweet Aunt Mary's on the other, I felt connected to my own life,
the life of my people, and to our place on the planet for a thousand years
running, backwards and forwards.
If anyone had asked me or would ever ask me, "What does it feel like
to be perfect?" I'd have told them, "It feels like this. To stand
with your own on a day like this, in this place, and want nothing more.
It feels like Jesus kissing you full on the lips. It feels like winning
the turkey in the jousting contest of life, and claiming that delicious
Our full-blown enthusiasm for Palio del Viccio, considerable as it was,
was rivaled by our attachment to the Feast of Saint Nicholas.
Whereas the turkey-joust festival spilled over with secular joie de vivre,
and lots of vicarious competitive energy, the Feast of St. Nicholas offered
a calmer, lovelier spectacle, verging on the sacred, promising affiliation
with the sacred -- but not quite fulfilling that promise. It still had its
The Feast of St. Nicholas harkened back to the eleventh century when sixty-two
Christian sailors, unduly attached to the saint who would later become "Santa
Claus," stole his holy bones from the heathen Muslims and sailed with
their dessicated prize for Beri, Christian Beri!
"That would have been one trip to pass up," my mother would comment
every year. "Imagine having to smell somebody's bones all the way from
Turkey! No thanks."
"They would've had the odor of jasmine and roses," reported Aunt
Ciara. "The fragrance of immortality, Palma. Because they were saints'
My mother took it in out of deference to what she believed to be her sister's
closeness to God. But basically, she was skeptical. To her, bones were bones.
"Well, more power to them if they had the stomach for it; at least
we get to have this festival. I should be home working, but let's just say
this is a great day and enjoy it!"
"Okay," everyone agreed. But it was never that easy. Away from
her daily servitude to foccaccia, my mother swung mood-wise between giddy
hilarity and crippling guilt. By far, her wisecracking was the more interesting
This year, as she watched the caravel on wheels carrying the antique statue
of St. Nicholas through the streets to the Basilica of San Nicola, she was
in rare form. Nothing escaped her scrutiny, as the oompah band leading the
procession solemnly played the Italian national anthem.
Two of the standard bearers, just in front of the Saint himself, leapt into
my mother's focus. How she could see so well and so far from our spot on
the porch of San Nicola's Basilica was beyond me. But she could.
"Madonna mia! Look who they got carrying the flags this year,"
she said incredulously. "It's the DiCenzo twins. Look, Pasquale, they're
just your age and they're the size of cows already. Can you believe it?"
"Oh," said Aunt Mary, peering down to the street, "come on.
They look kind of cute. Those standards are heavy. They've got a big job,
those poor kids."
"Hey, they're up to it," my mother confirmed. "It looks like
their mother's been feeding them lard to get 'em ready. And she put them
in pink on top of it. Pink tulle. Disgraceful. Pasquale, do you see how
bad pink makes you look if you're fat?"
"So what SHOULD they be wearing?" I asked, all snotty.
"Some bags over their heads," said Uncle Stephano.
"Bags over their heads, ha ha ha. That's rich," Rocco jumped
in to admire his brother's rapier wit.
"God, why didn't I stay home?" my mother queried the world which
had betrayed her with its less-than-aesthetic elements. "To be subjected
to this. What a miserable sight. I can't go anywhere. I'm cursed. Look at
those twins, will you?"
Without meaning to make obvious fun of her sour sister's appetite for misery,
my Aunt Mary started sniggering. Within seconds, Uncle Alfredo joined in,
and pretty soon everybody was laughing.
Turning in repugnance from the puffing, sweating twins, my mother was greeted
by the sight of her entire family guffawing. It took her, I could tell,
quite by surprise.
For a moment she narrowed her left eye like she was getting ready to attack.
But then, the corners of her red, shapely lips turned up -- all the way
up. And she began to laugh, too, at herself. She laughed and laughed.
"Quit it, you fools," she said, catching a breath here and there.
"I'm going to have to pee if you keep it up. It's not funny. Keep it
up and I'm not walking home with you. I mean it."
"Good," Ciara laughed on, "you stay here with St. Nicholas
and the twins. We'll see you in Casamassima. Who needs you, Palma?"
So there stood my mother in the heart of the Festival of Saint Nicholas
-- at the end of the Via del Carmine, poised just so between the two stylized
bulls which support its huge columns -- laughing and trying hard not to
I would be lying if I told you I didn't love her at that moment, in spite
of every niggling, crotchety thing she'd ever done or would do again in
five minutes, once she'd come to her senses.
But for right then, she was essentially beautiful, unguarded and free --
free of her foccaccia, free of my father's claims on her sense of duty,
free of having to tend and shape my attitude and me. It must have felt good,
I realized deeply. She was free in that moment, even of herself, a self
from which she, most of all, wanted a vacation.
And wasn't that the purpose of a festival like that of St. Nicholas, the
patron saint of children and sailors?
To feel free and expansive and playful, and like your very bones had set
sail for somewhere which welcomed them as miraculous?
Patricia Catto teaches literature and creative writing at the Kansas City
Art Institute. She's an Italian American woman with many eating disorders
of a spiritual nature. Write to her at email@example.com.
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