Friday, 14 January 2022

Joy, Happiness, Culture and Refinement - by Ruth Downie

It’s hard to imagine now, but there was a time when, if you didn’t know something and neither did your neighbours, you had to find a book and look it up. When I first worked in a library it was not unusual for people to phone us in search of answers to quiz questions, because unless you owned your own encyclopaedias, there was only one place to find help. So when I started to look at the story of one local library I was amazed at what a struggle its creation had been. Surely everyone would have thought a library was a Good Thing? 
Evidently not. 

Large Victorian pavilion with plants and seating
Ilfracombe's seafront pavilion, c.1870  

By the later years of Queen Victoria’s reign the small town of Ilfracombe, on the coast of North Devon, was a thriving holiday destination. In the first decade of the 20th century the reading tastes of locals and visitors alike were catered for by no less than five subscription libraries. Readers could thrill to stories by Conan Doyle, Rudyard Kipling and Louis de Rougemont, whose controversial adventures included “Round the World on Wheels”, “Twenty-eight Days Without Food” and the alarming “Shot Through the Head with a Ramrod.” 
Victorian gentleman
Louis de Rougemont

Keen to attract customers, the libraries advertised their stock in the newspapers. JS Fletcher’s mystery novel “The Death that Lurks Unseen”, Florence Warden’s “A Lowly Lover” or AEW Mason’s “Miranda of the Balcony” could be borrowed for 3d (just over 1p). Eager readers could have three books at a time for an annual subscription of 21s (£1.05). However, if you couldn’t pay, your chances of enjoying any of the latest tales - including my absolute favourite title, LT Meade’s “Maid with the Goggles” - were slim. There was no mention at all of reference works.

From about 1850 onwards local councils were empowered to set up free public libraries, but take-up was slow. There was a flurry of activity around Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887 but Ilfracombe’s attempts to join in did not begin until early 1899. On 14 January The Ilfracombe Chronicle & North Devon News printed a letter of support from an anonymous ratepayer who hoped the proposed library would prove “a counteractive influence to the public house.” 

The Chronicle’s local columnist, “Man about Town,” was also delighted with the idea, declaring in the same issue that “A library open to all classes, rich and poor, is a great boon to professional men and artizans [sic] alike”.

Unfortunately not all the town’s councillors agreed with him.

“The… speeches of the members,” declared the disgusted Man About Town in his column the following week, “proved… that many of them know nothing at all about the question.” This, he felt, was the only possible reason for the Council’s “utterly inexplicable” veto of the proposal despite widespread public support.

He dismissed the counter-suggestion of a “voluntary library” as “twaddle,” and saw no sense in the decision to consult the ratepayers. Indeed, 94 out of 99 letters sent to the Council chairman were in favour of the scheme.

“In the course of my professional duties,” declared one, “I am constantly brought in contact with students who are hampered in their studies for want of a good reference library.”

Another claimed, “The people of this town are endowed with great natural intelligence, but have been unfairly handicapped in the pursuit of knowledge by the absence of such an institution.”

On 28 January Man About Town returned to the subject for a third week, confident that despite this setback the ratepayers of Ilfracombe would see their own public library before long. Other local papers were not so sure. He quotes the North Devon Journal as being “astonished” at the decision, but the Exeter Gazette concluded that it was “a wise one” in view of other pressing needs for funds. Meanwhile the North Devon Herald pulled no punches. There was, it said, “no valid reason whatsoever why the ratepayers should be taxed… to furnish folks with a very limited selection of books, which they would only grumble and cavil over… the public will always clamour for anything they can see a chance of getting for nothing.”

Portrait photo of smartly-dressed man with white hair and beard
Andrew Carnegie
The Council finally voted to adopt the Public Libraries Act in 1903, but little changed until 1904/5. That was when a knight on a white charger rode into town. In spirit, at least. In body, Dunfermline-born Andrew Carnegie remained in the USA. A man of humble origins, Carnegie had educated himself largely by reading, and subsequently made a fortune in the steel industry. In 1901 he sold his company for $480 million, which made him about twice as rich as Bill Gates is now. Carnegie then devoted himself to philanthropy and, along with much else, his generous grants enabled the setting up of 2509 public libraries across the world. £3000 of his money (about £375,000 today) was on offer to Ilfracombe.

Should the town accept? A Carnegie grant would come with strict conditions, and the recipients were expected to find the library’s running costs for themselves. The council voted to receive the money, but in January of 1905 the Chronicle reported “great differences of opinion” at a lively public meeting:
Mr W Pile said "they should put every opportunity of improvement in the way of the young men of the town. (CHEERS)

"…Mr Dadds went on to say that public libraries were a failure nearly everywhere. (HEAR HEAR) What did they read in these libraries? (RUBBISH) The town was expecting to get a Higher Grade School, and did not need the library."

The report offers a great deal more in this vein, suggesting everyone present was having a marvellous time – until the vote. The count was 85 for the library, 100 against.

Nevertheless, plans for a library were approved in 1912. There then follows a long silence, only partly explained by the interruption of the Great War.

On 23 May 1925 the Ilfracombe Chronicle Gazette and Observer ran the subtitle, “Carnegie Trustees want something definite”. This was not unreasonable, as “It is now more than 20 years since the promise was made by Mr Carnegie” and there was neither a library nor any obvious sign of one. The council, still mired in complications over the site, voted to adjourn.

It was not until 1934, 35 years after it was first proposed, that Ilfracombe’s Free Public Library finally opened in the rest room of the magnificent Ilfracombe Hotel - “lofty and airy, flooded with light from the glass dome roof.” (The hotel is the large building on the left in the picture.) There were 820 fiction, 300 juvenile fiction, and 440 non-fiction and reference books. It was created with help of the Devon County library service, which had received substantial help from the Carnegie fund and had set up 463 branches across Devon. The Ilfracombe Chronicle & North Devon News shared the good news on 14 December. 

Picture of rocky beach with large seafront hotel
Ilfracombe seafront

“I feel convinced,” announced County Councillor Mr RM Rowe, “that the provision of a public library will not only add to the amenities of this township, but will also bring a large measure of joy, happiness, culture and refinement to the inhabitants.”

The Ilfracombe Hotel is long gone, but the public library which began life there is still bringing joy, happiness, culture and refinement to the town. Sadly I have searched the catalogue in vain for “Maid with the Goggles”. 


Thanks to Ilfracombe Library, who inspired the original research, and Ilfracombe Museum, who provided most of the material. All errors are of course my own.

For a brief summary of the rise of English public library (with occasional refs to NI, Scotland & Wales) visit the Historic England website.

For more on Andrew Carnegie, visit the website of the Carnegie Corporation

When she isn't hanging around museums, libraries and archaeological holes in the ground, Ruth Downie writes a series of murder mysteries. They're set mostly in Roman Britain and feature army medic Gaius Petrieus Ruso, and his British partner Tilla. To find out more, visit


Photo credits -
Pavilion - Francis Bedford, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
Louis de Rougemont - George Newnes, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons 
Andrew Carnegie -User Magnus Manske on en.wikipedia, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Ilfracombe sea front -Photochrom Print Collection, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Friday, 7 January 2022

I Remember, I Remember, the House Where I Was Born by Susan Price

Thank you to Susan Price for this guest post; Janie Hampton will be back in July. And a Happy New Year to all our readers!


My mother hated me saying that I was born in a slum, but I was.

Brades Row was a terrace of houses at right angles to the surfaced road into Oldbury. The front doors opened directly onto ‘the track’ which was exactly that — an unpaved dirt track leading down from the rough fields of scrub and hawthorn to the road. On the other side of the track stood a row of ‘brew-houses’ or ‘wash-houses’: the names were interchangeable.

(‘Wash’ was pronounced with a long ‘a’, as at the beginning of ‘acorn.’) The wash-houses were of damp, blackened brick. They contained a large stone sink, a pump, and a boiler with a fire underneath. This was for heating water to do the laundry, which was done in a tub of water and pounded with ‘a dolly.’ I seem to remember a mangle too, for squeezing water from the clothes. My grandmother had washed clothes in this wash-house, and so did my mother. The wet clothes were hung on a line in the garden to dry or, if it was wet, hung around the house where they dripped on people and made them miserable. They could take days to dry.

  Follow this link to find out more about the exhausting chore of washing with a dolly and dolly-tub.

Beyond the Brades Row wash-houses was a stream, called the Brades brook, which ran under the road and emptied into the canal which ran behind the Brades Tool factory. (The gate of ‘the Brades’ with its huge clock was opposite the end of Brades Row.)


This illustration shows the Brades Steel Works, which was established by 1796 and exported tools all over the world. Draw an imaginary line up from the 'W' of 'Works and you come to the main gate, with its clock tower. Brades Row was later built directly opposite that main gate at right angles to the road.

Behind the factory you can just see the canal which brought raw materials to the Brades and took away finished tools. My mother lived in fear of me toddling past the Brades to fall in the canal and drown. It looks a long way to toddle, to me.

The Brades Steel Works has long since gone. And Brades Row, where I was born, is an elusive place. In this drawing, it hasn't yet been built and I can't find a later photograph that shows it. Soon after my family left, in 1960, it was demolished.

This link takes you to a site with information about The Brades (which was named after Saint Brade, the saint of Sandwell Abbey.  
The Brades brook had flooded the track and houses on more than one occasion. Some people in the row tried to keep the banks of the stream built up, to prevent this. It didn't always work. 
Behind the row of houses were long strips of garden and beyond the garden wall there were wild, scrubby fields where sometimes cows and horses roamed. There was also a pig-sty. In those days, the Black Country was blackened country. 

Inside the houses… What can I remember? The floor of the kitchen was of bare stone flags because I remember playing with a wind-up toy on them. There was an old-fashioned kitchen range instead of a fireplace: the fire was built in the range. But I think there was also a gas-stove in one corner. 

I think there was a large stone kitchen sink but there was no running water in the house. (There was no bathroom or toilet either.) Water had to be fetched in heavy buckets from the wash-house across the track: a heavy task.  

There was no electricity in the house. It was lit by gas-lamps, with a meter. When your shilling in the meter ran out, the light went out and left you in darkness. As my mother was convinced the house was haunted, she didn't like this at all.

My grandparents had lived in Number 5 before my parents, renting it from ‘Danksey’ who owned the whole terrace and came himself to collect the rent. Since they were good tenants, he gave them the chance to rent a large flat in another building he owned, a ‘coal-master’s’ mansion he had divided up. He was happy to accept my mother and father as the new tenants in 5, Brades Row.

I’m told that while my grandparents lived there, my grandmother refused to enter the house first if they returned to it after dark. This was because, when the lamps were lit, there was a rush of cockroaches across the floor and down the walls, to their hiding places in cracks and crevices and she couldn’t stand their scuttling.

The houses were also alive with mice who came in from the fields. Intermingled with them were white and patched mice which had once been pets, but had escaped and gone feral. My grandfather had a long-running battle with one black and white mouse he called ‘Micky Duff.’ Other mice regularly fell into the traps Grandad set but Mickey Duff, easily recognisable by his pied coat, evaded them all. 

A random mouse impersonating Mickey Duff. The original photo is to be found here, on Wikimedia.

One cold, snowy winter’s day, Grandad was sitting by the fire when he saw Mickey run along the skirting board and go into the oven by an air-vent. Grandad leapt up, blocked the vent with newspaper, and turned on the gas. Several minutes later, he turned off the gas and opened the oven door to reveal the still corpse of his enemy. With a cry of triumph, Grandad seized the body, took it to the door and threw it outside into the snow. And Mickey Duff revived and rushed back into the house between Grandad’s feet. “I give up,” Grandad said. “Mickey Duff has won. He can have the run of the house from now on.”

With no bathroom, you could wash yourself at the kitchen sink. You could even boil a kettle for a wash in warm water if you were nesh. But many people just took a towel across the track to the wash-house and washed over there in the icy cold water from the pump, using a big green cake of laundry soap, which was also used for scrubbing floors. Since every house had its own wash-house, it was a little more private than washing in front of the kitchen window — but biting cold in winter. I can dimly remember — or think I can — being put in the wash-house’s big stone sink by my mother and bathed there. In summer, though.

And toilets? During the night you used a chamber pot —known as a ‘gozunder’ because it went under the bed. During the day you went out of the door and walked up the track to a row of brick built lavatories near where the fields began. There were 21 houses in the row and 11 lavatories. (Our house was number 5, in the middle of the row, and it was bigger than the others because it had once been where the landlord had lived. So it had a back door and a front door. The other houses had all been divided into two.) 

You walked up the track, past about ten houses, to the lavatories. They had doors made of wooden planks with a metal latch — so did the houses, but the gap at the bottom of the house doors was smaller. There’s a Black Country expression: ‘He had a loff like a gleed under a doo-er.’ It’s a phrase Shakespeare would have understood. Loff — ‘laugh.’ A gleed is a small, hard ember of burned out coal from the fire. A doo-er is a door. 

Imagine a small coal from the fire, kicked about the floor until it lodges in the gap at the bottom of a planking door. The door is opened, dragging the gleed across a stone-flagged floor. The resulting, teeth-gritting sound is what the laugh was like. 

So, no indoor plumbing. No electricity. Planking doors opening directly onto a dirt track. Small, cramped, damp rooms. Mice and cockroaches. I think that qualifies as a slum, Mum. 

I was born in 1955. Our unfit-for-purpose voting system had ensured that the Tories had been re-elected but all over the country Labour councils like ours were making good on their 1948 promise to improve the lives of the 90% who didn't own 44% of the country's wealth. They were clearing slums like Brades Row and building council estates.

So, when I was four years old, my family moved to a nearly new council house. My mother could not believe her luck but was terrified that she wouldn't be able to pay the rent. She'd paid ten bob a week (50p) for 5, Brades Row. The council rent was £1, paid fortnightly, so every other week she would have to find two whole pounds.

But for this mere doubling of rent she gained a semi-detached house, not a terrace, that wasn't damp and didn't leak. It had no cockroaches or mice. All of the three bedrooms had windows (one of the bedrooms at Brades Row had been a windowless cupboard.)

There was electricity! And in the kitchen, a sink with taps to fill it with hot or cold water. And a gas-stove!

There was a bathroom with a plumbed in bath that could be filled with warm water! And, beside the bath, a wash-basin and a lavatory. Indoors!

The front door didn't open directly onto a pavement or dirt track but onto a small front garden and a path that led to the street. Behind the house was a small but private back garden where my mother could plant all the flowers she loved.

She loved that house too. During the week when she didn't have to pay the rent, she bought us the new shoes or clothes we needed, but it was egg and chips every night during the week the rent had to be paid. Now and again we had to hide with her under the table when the rent-man knocked (because he would sometimes come round the back and peer in the window.)

When my parents moved to that council house, they were less than half the age I am now and they believed the world was becoming better: kinder and fairer. When their children were ill, they took them to an NHS doctor, the cost already covered by their taxes. Their children were given a comprehensive school education, better than any education any member of our family had ever had before.

But now look where we are. The Trade Union for Billionaires is in power again, with a majority, despite only roughly 40% of votes cast being for them. They've sold off council housing and decent homes are again in short supply. The NHS has already been partly sold off to American companies: the rest will follow soon. The necessities of fuel, water, communication and transport have been sold off, mismanaged, made more expensive and less safe.


Thursday, 30 December 2021

Remembering Josephine Baker, by Carol Drinkwater


"France is Josephine." 


This is one of the photos I took of the facade of the Panthéon, snapped while I was queuing to pay my respects to Josephine Baker. Exceptionally, during that first weekend of December, entrance was free to everyone, thus offering citizens the opportunity to say farewell to a woman who had come to France as a teenager escaping racism and segregation, and made this country, where she found acceptance and success, her home.

Whilst I was in Paris a few weeks ago, on a cold winter Saturday afternoon,  I took myself off to the Panthéon. There I queued in the Place de Panthéon along with hundreds of others waiting to enter the Tomb of Heroes. Fortunately for us all, the rain and biting wind stayed away for those few hours we were in line. Everyone was in good spirits. A few days earlier on Tuesday 30th November 2021, Josephine Baker had become the first Black woman to be inducted into France's Tomb of Heroes. President Macron hailed the American-born dancer, singer, night-club artist and courageous French resistance fighter as a 'symbol of unity in a time of division'. 

Baker was born Freda Josephine McDonald in St Louis, Missouri in 1906. Her childhood was spent in poverty. Her mother, who was abandoned by Baker's father, Eddie Carson, a vaudeville drummer, soon after their daughter's birth, worked as a washerwoman. To help her mother keep the family fed Josephine from the age of eight went out to clean and babysit. Most of the houses where she was employed were owned by rich white folk who didn't treat her well. 
She was also profoundly marked by the race riots, the lynchings she witnessed when she was eleven. The East St. Louis 'Race War.' At least 39 black citizens were brutally killed, many of them lynched. This and the desperate times and discrimination she encountered during her childhood years, played an important role in her work later with Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement.

Josephine quit school at 12, lived on the streets, scavenged for food, eventually running away from St Louis when she was thirteen. At thirteen she married and separated weeks later. Finally, at sixteen, after stints of waitressing, she found herself touring the United States with the Jones Family band and the Dixie Steppers. She had been teaching herself to dance and to turn her hand to a few comedy routines.
In 1921, she married for the second time, one Willie Baker, a railway worker. The marriage did not last but she kept his name for the rest of her life. By now she was in New York performing in Chocolate Dandies and, along with the renowned singer-actress Ethel Waters, Josephine was in the floor show at the Plantation Club. It took no time before she became a big hit with the audiences. By 1925, nineteen-year-old Josephine decided to take her chances in Europe, in Paris where Les Années Folles - France's equivalent of the Roaring Twenties - were in full swing. Paris was jumping to the beat of the jazz. Baker sailed to France, landed in Cherbourg and opened on 2 October in La Revue Nègre at the Théâtre des Champ-Élysées. For her role in this she was paid 250 dollars a week which was double her Broadway salary. Nineteen years old, she was a sensation. Paris brought her stardom; it also showed her that there was another way to live. There was dignity. She became a protégée and friend of Ada "Bricktop" Smith, another extraordinary black American vaudeville star who was taking the French capital by storm, making it her home.
Paris in the twenties was an exceptional city to be living in. Cole Porter, E.E. Cummings, John Steinbeck, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Picasso, to name but a few, all were present. Josephine was not only very much a part of that multi-cultural scene, she was admired, fêted. She wowed spectators when performing at the Folies Bergère wearing a skirt, a tutu, made of 16 bananas. It drew attention, while her Charleston dancing drove the audiences wild. ("I am not naked, I am just not wearing any clothes.") By the time she was twenty-two Baker was one of the highest paid performers in Europe.

                                                       Photo taken in 1920s.

She was the first Black woman to star in a motion picture, Siren of the Tropics, in 1927. A French film directed by Mario Nalpas and  Henri  Étievant. (A little known fact I discovered when I was researching for this post: Luis Bunuel worked as assistant director on this film). It was a motion picture well ahead  of its time and  ran for six months in French cinemas which was considered a great success. Baker was during these years of the twenties the leading star of the Folies Bergères cabarets. Her on-screen presence was hailed as magnetic. She was in every sense a star, and a groundbreaking one at that. 
She toured Europe, studied French, and built herself a remarkable reputation.

                                                                Josephine in her banana skirt.

In 1936, she returned to the States to star in the Broadway show, Ziegfeld Follies, hoping to replicate her European success, but she had not counted on the level of discrimination that would greet her. Time magazine mocked her, calling her a "buck-toothed Negro" whose talent could be matched by anyone. Broken-hearted, less than a year later, she returned to France resolving to make it her permanent home. Upon her return she married for the third time, a French industrialist, Jean Lion (born Levy). This offered her the opportunity to take citizenship, which she did. 
It was also around this time, before the outbreak of WWII, that Baker bought a renaissance castle overlooking the Dordogne River in south-west France, Château des Milandes. This home became a place of great significance. She organised for her family tp be brought over from St Louis and gave them a home there. She and her husband lived there until he - being of Jewish origin - was obliged to flee the Nazis. 

When France declared war on Nazi Germany in September 1939, Josephine immediately stepped up to participate in the war effort .She joined the counter-intelligence service, using her charms and reputation to gather information. She worked in cafes, clubs, bars and embassies. She also helped raise funds for the French army, as well as paying for her family to return to safety back in the United States. 
When France capitulated in the early summer of 1940, Baker turned her talents to gathering information for the Résistance. She passed on coded information through her musical scores. She moved to Morocco to entertain the Free French and Allied troops. After the war, having returned from North Africa and the Middle East as a second lieutenant in the French air force, she was awarded both the Croix de Guerre and Legion of Honour with the rosette of the Résistance. France's highest civilian and military distinctions.

After the war, Baker married for the fourth time,  the bandleader Jo Bouillon. She spent most of her time at Château des Milandes. In 1947 she began to adopt children - a hysterectomy earlier in life meant that she couldn't bear children of her own. The "Rainbow Tribe" is the collective name she gave to her offspring. Twelve adopted infants from all over the world. She saw her family as an experiment in brotherhood and frequently invited people to the estate to see how happily they all lived together.

In the 50s, Baker returned to the States to take on another cause, one to which she was as deeply committed as she had been to the freeing of France: the Civil Rights Movement.  She has been famously quoted as saying that she could walk into palaces, embassies, the residences of some of the rich and famous, but back home in St Louis she couldn't walk into a bar and order a cup of coffee. She fought against segregation and refused to perform in any club or venue where segregation was in force. She marched with Martin Luther King, spoke out against the poverty and indignities suffered by the African-Americans. She was eventually accepted by America as an artist and a voice in her own right. 20th May was named Josephine Baker Day.

In 1975 back in Paris, fifty years after her first performance in the country that had welcomed her and given her dignity, she performed at the Theatre Bobino. It was to have been the opening of a series of concerts. Amongst many luminaries in the audience that night was Diana Ross, Mick Jagger, Sophie Lauren as well as Baker's very dear and loyal friend, Grace Kelly, Princess Grace of Monaco, who had given Josephine a sea-view residence in Roquebrune close to Monaco after Baker lost her chateau in March 1969, because she could not meet the bills and running costs. Tragically, there were only three performances at Bobino because Baker suffered a cerebral haemorrhage in her sleep. She was taken in a coma to the Pitié-Sapêtrière Hospital in Paris where she died two days later.

Crowds lined the streets of Paris on the day of her funeral. She was given a twenty-one gun salute. The first American woman to receive full French military honours. She was later buried in a cemetery in Monaco, which is where her body remains today. 

Her family requested that her body was not exhumed and moved to the Panthéon. In the coffin that was laid in the Tomb of Heroes on 30th November this year is earth from the soils of St Louis, Paris, Château des Milandes and, her final home, Monaco. 

I walked the echoing stone floors of the former church of Sainte Geneviève and descended to the vast, impressively vast, crypt, at the Panthéon. I walked alongside, brushed spiritual shoulders with, such giants as Dumas, Malraux, Jean Moulin, Emile Zola, Victor Hugo. Voltaire, Rousseau.
But where were the women? 
Only six women have been laid to rest in this sanctified place in their own merit.

Sophie Berthelot in 1907. Her husband was a famous chemist and the family were insistent that the couple be buried together. Polish-French physicist and Nobel laureate, Marie Curie, became in 1995 the first woman in her own right to be buried here. (Her husband Pierre, is also honoured with a place for his pioneering work on radioactivity.) Résistance fighters Genevieve de Gaulle-Anthonioz and Germaine Tillion were both inducted in 2015, Simone Veil in 2018 - Veil was also chosen by Macron - and lastly in 2021, Josephine.

Here lies Josephine:

                                                          Josephine Baker's place at the Pantheon.

Outside on the facade of the towering edifice is written: Aux grands hommes, la patrie reconnaissante.
'To the great men, the nation (fatherland) is grateful.' It always fascinates and rather amuses me that the word la patrie is feminine. There is certainly a move here in France to honour the women of the nation and Macron has contributed one third of those females now laid to rest in honour at the Panthéon. Personally, I would like to see the stone outside recarved to read: Aux grands femmes et hommes ...

                       You will have to look carefully to see the gold-lettered writing above the entrance pillars.

Are there any women whose names you would put forward to join Josephine Baker and the handful of other exceptional women now at rest in the Panthéon? I would be fascinated to hear them.

Friday, 24 December 2021

 Italian Christmas by Miranda Miller



   This is a photo of a Christmas market in Piazza Navona, Rome’s beautiful baroque square. Like most of you, I haven’t been able to go abroad for over two years and I’m feeling pangs of nostalgia for Italian Christmases I have known.


   In the Piazza Navona children queue to meet La Befana, friendly witch who rides around on a broom delivering sweets to children on her good list, and coal to naughty children. Her name derives from the word "epifania", for it is on January 5, Epiphany Eve, that she flies around. Parents leave her a glass of wine and some food and before she flies off from each house she   sweeps away the problems of the last year. This is an older tradition than Babbo Natale, or Father Christmas. 



   According to the Christian (and of course sexist) version of her story, when the three Magi followed the star, bearing their gifts of gold, incense and myrrh for the new-born Jesus Christ, many people joined them. But one old woman said she was too busy with her housework. Later, she changed her mind and ran after them with a bag   of presents for the baby but she was too late and so she is still searching for him. There are many versions of this story.

   This might in fact be a Pagan tradition, going back to an ancient Roman festivity in honour of Janus and Strenia  when Romans used to give each other presents at the beginning of the year. In Italian a Christmas gift used to be called strenna



   Another Christmas tradition you still see in Rome is zampognari   -   men playing wheezy bagpipes, dressed as shepherds in short trousers with leather leggings, a sheepskin vest, woolly cloak and peaked cap. Most people think they are there in imitation of the shepherds who worshipped the baby Christ but this, too, might be an earlier tradition:  bagpipes are a very ancient instrument and it’s possible that even in Roman times shepherds started coming down from the Abruzzi, the mountainous area just outside Rome, in winter, to earn some extra money playing music.


   Tonight, Christmas Eve, is the Vigilia di Natale and like all Italian holidays it’s an excuse for wonderful food. You are not supposed to eat meat on the eve of a feast day. Here is a seductive picture of some of the delicious fish dishes that might be served, including baccalà (salt cod), frutti di mare (shellfish), capitone (eel), calamari (squid), scungilli (conch meat) andvongole (clams). Fried artichokes, pickled vegetables, and fried fiori di zucchini, (courgette flowers), are often served.

    Most Italian families  set up a ceppo or presepio. This comes from the Latin word for a crib. It’s a small pyramid-shaped wooden frame displaying a model of the Nativity scene.  In Naples, on the Via San Gregorio Armeno, you can buy hand carved figurines  for this charming tradition of folk art. This is a traditional presepio:


   This idea of bringing the nativity scene to life is supposed to have been invented by St Francis of Assisi. In 1223  he recreated the scene of Jesus' birth in the town of Greccio, using real people and animals, 


   He wrote, “I want to do something that will recall the memory of that Child who was born in Bethlehem, to see with bodily eyes the inconveniences of his infancy, how he lay in the manger, and how the ox and ass stood by."


   Later, Churches and homes across Europe began to stage their own versions with model figures instead of live participants. In 18th-century Naples famous sculptors and painters were commissioned by aristocratic patrons to create figures and backdrops for magnificent presepie. These tableaux incorporated fascinating scenes of everyday life in Naples – street-sellers, beggars and shopkeepers joined the shepherds, the three Magi and the holy family against an elaborate backdrop of taverns and ruined temples. The V&A have a wonderful   collection of these  presepio figures dating back to the 18th century.


   You also see less traditional versions, such as this one, from Naples, with celebrities including Superman, mafiosi and politicians including (I think) BelusconiAs well as the usual scene of the Nativity you can see a tavern with sausages and hams hanging up and a market laden with fruit and vegetables.


 For those who are not devout Catholics, all this can feel like too much religion. Goethe certainly thought so, he described Christmas Day celebrations in St Peter’s Square on January 6 1787 in his Italian Journey: “The spectacle is unique in every way, splendid and quite dignified.” But, he added, “I am such a long-time Protestant Diogenist that I find the magnificence more repellent than attractive. Like my pious predecessor I would wish to say to these ecclesiastical world conquerors: ‘Do not hide the sun of higher art and pure humanity from me.’”

   For me, as an agnostic  Italophile foreigner, these traditions are  very attractive and I look forward to being able to enjoy an Italian Christmas again some day.