IL DONO DI NATALE
Di Grazia Deledda
I cinque fratelli Lobina, tutti pastori, tornavano dai loro ovili, per passare la notte di Natale in famiglia.
Era una festa eccezionale, per loro, quell’anno, perché si fidanzava la loro unica sorella, con un giovane molto ricco.
Come si usa dunque in Sardegna, il fidanzato doveva mandare un regalo alla sua promessa sposa, e poi andare anche lui a passare la festa con la famiglia di lei.
E i cinque fratelli volevano far corona alla sorella, anche per dimostrare al futuro cognato che se non erano ricchi come lui, in cambio erano forti, sani, uniti fra di loro come un gruppo di guerrieri.
Avevano mandato avanti il fratello più piccolo, Felle, un bel ragazzo di undici anni, dai grandi occhi dolci, vestito di pelli lanose come un piccolo San Giovanni Battista; portava sulle spalle una bisaccia, e dentro la bisaccia un maialetto appena ucciso che doveva servire per la cena.
Il piccolo paese era coperto di neve; le casette nere, addossate al monte, parevano disegnate su di un cartone bianco, e la chiesa, sopra un terrapieno sostenuto da macigni, circondata d’alberi carichi di neve e di ghiacciuoli, appariva come uno di quegli edifizi fantastici che disegnano le nuvole.
Tutto era silenzio: gli abitanti sembravano sepolti sotto la neve.
Felle fischiò, per annunziare il suo arrivo: e subito, alla porta del vicino si affacciò una ragazzina col viso rosso dal freddo e gli occhi scintillanti di gioia.
– Ben tornato, Felle.
– Oh, Lia! – egli gridò per ricambiarle il saluto, e si avvicinò alla porticina dalla quale, adesso, con la luce usciva anche il fumo di un grande fuoco acceso nel focolare in mezzo alla cucina.
Intorno al focolare stavano sedute le sorelline di Lia, per tenerle buone la maggiore di esse, cioè quella che veniva dopo l’amica di Felle, distribuiva loro qualche chicco di uva passa e cantava una canzoncina d’occasione, cioè una ninnananna per Gesù Bambino.
– Che ci hai, qui? – domandò Lia, toccando la bisaccia di Felle. – Ah, il porchetto. Anche la serva del fidanzato di tua sorella ha già portato il regalo. Farete grande festa voi, – aggiunse con una certa invidia; ma poi si riprese e annunziò con gioia maliziosa: – e anche noi!
Invano Felle le domandò che festa era: Lia gli chiuse la porta in faccia, ed egli attraversò il cortile per entrare in casa sua.
In casa sua si sentiva davvero odore di festa: odore di torta di miele cotta al forno, e di dolci confezionati con buccie di arancie e mandorle tostate. Tanto che Felle cominciò a digrignare i denti, sembrandogli di sgretolare già tutte quelle cose buone ma ancora nascoste.
La sorella, alta e sottile, era già vestita a festa; col corsetto di broccato verde e la gonna nera e rossa: intorno al viso pallido aveva un fazzoletto di seta a fiori; ed anche le sue scarpette erano ricamate e col fiocco: pareva insomma una giovane fata, mentre la mamma, tutta vestita di nero per la sua recente vedovanza, pallida anche lei ma scura in viso e con un’aria di superbia, avrebbe potuto ricordare la figura di una strega, senza la grande dolcezza degli occhi che rassomigliavano a quelli di Felle.
Egli intanto traeva dalla bisaccia il porchetto, tutto rosso perché gli avevano tinto la cotenna col suo stesso sangue: e dopo averlo consegnato alla madre volle vedere quello mandato in dono dal fidanzato. Sì, era più grosso quello del fidanzato: quasi un maiale; ma questo portato da lui, più tenero e senza grasso, doveva essere più saporito.
– Ma che festa possono fare i nostri vicini, se essi non hanno che un po’ di uva passa, mentre noi abbiamo questi due animaloni in casa? E la torta, e i dolci? – pensò Felle con disprezzo, ancora indispettito perché Lia, dopo averlo quasi chiamato, gli aveva chiuso la porta in faccia.
Poi arrivarono gli altri fratelli, portando nella cucina, prima tutta in ordine e pulita, le impronte dei loro scarponi pieni di neve, e il loro odore di selvatico. Erano tutti forti, belli, con gli occhi neri, la barba nera, il corpetto stretto come una corazza e, sopra, la mastrucca.
Quando entrò il fidanzato si alzarono tutti in piedi, accanto alla sorella, come per far davvero una specie di corpo di guardia intorno all’esile e delicata figura di lei; e non tanto per riguardo al giovine, che era quasi ancora un ragazzo, buono e timido, quanto per l’uomo che lo accompagnava.
Quest’uomo era il nonno del fidanzato. Vecchio di oltre ottanta anni, ma ancora dritto e robusto, vestito di panno e di velluto come un gentiluomo medioevale, con le uose di lana sulle gambe forti, questo nonno, che in gioventù aveva combattuto per l’indipendenza d’Italia, fece ai cinque fratelli il saluto militare e parve poi passarli in rivista.
E rimasero tutti scambievolmente contenti.
Al vecchio fu assegnato il posto migliore, accanto al fuoco; e allora sul suo petto, fra i bottoni scintillanti del suo giubbone, si vide anche risplendere come un piccolo astro la sua antica medaglia al valore militare. La fidanzata gli versò da bere, poi versò da bere al fidanzato e questi, nel prendere il bicchiere, le mise in mano, di nascosto, una moneta d’oro.
Ella lo ringraziò con gli occhi, poi, di nascosto pure lei, andò a far vedere la moneta alla madre ed a tutti i fratelli, in ordine di età, mentre portava loro il bicchiere colmo.
Il vecchio sollevò il bicchiere, augurando salute e gioia a tutti; e tutti risposero in coro.
Po si misero a discutere in un modo originale: vale a dire cantando. Il vecchio era un bravo poeta estemporaneo, improvvisava cioè canzoni; ed anche il fratello maggiore della fidanzata sapeva fare altrettanto.
Fra loro due quindi intonarono una gara di ottave, su allegri argomenti d’occasione; e gli altri ascoltavano, facevano coro e applaudivano.
Fuori le campane suonarono, annunziando la messa.
Era tempo di cominciare a preparare la cena. La madre, aiutata da Felle, staccò le cosce ai due porchetti e le infilò in tre lunghi spiedi dei quali teneva il manico fermo a terra.
– La quarta la porterai in regalo ai nostri vicini – disse a Felle: – anch’essi hanno diritto di godersi la festa.
Nella casetta del vicino, invece, adesso, tutti tacevano: anche le bambine ancora accovacciate intorno al focolare pareva si fossero addormentate aspettando però ancora, in sogno, un dono meraviglioso.
– La mamma si sente male: ed il babbo è andato a comprare una bella cosa. Vattene.
Egli rientrò pensieroso a casa sua. Là non c’erano misteri né dolori: tutto era vita, movimento e gioia. Mai un Natale era stato così bello, neppure quando viveva ancora il padre: Felle però si sentiva in fondo un po’ triste, pensando alla festa strana della casa dei vicini.
– Oh, ragazzi, su, in fila.
E tutti si alzarono per andare alla messa. In casa rimase solo la madre, per badare agli spiedi che girava lentamente accanto al fuoco per far bene arrostire la carne del porchetto.
I figli, dunque, i fidanzati e il nonno, che pareva guidasse la compagnia, andavano in chiesa. La neve attutiva i loro passi: figure imbacuccate sbucavano da tutte le parti, con lanterne in mano, destando intorno ombre e chiarori fantastici. Si scambiavano saluti, si batteva alle porte chiuse, per chiamare tutti alla messa.
Dentro la chiesa continuava l’illusione della primavera: l’altare era tutto adorno di rami di corbezzolo coi frutti rossi, di mirto e di alloro: i ceri brillavano tra le fronde e l’ombra di queste si disegnavano sulle pareti come sui muri di un giardino.
In una cappella sorgeva il presepio, con una montagna fatta di sughero e rivestita di musco: i Re Magi scendevano cauti da un sentiero erto, e una cometa d’oro illuminava loro la via.
– Gloria, gloria – cantavano i preti sull’altare: e il popolo rispondeva:
Felle cantava anche lui, e sentiva che questa gioia che gli riempiva il cuore era il più bel dono che Gesù gli mandava.
Felle andò a vedere: collocò il piatto ed il vaso più in alto, sopra un’asse della tettoia, perché i cani randagi non li toccassero; poi guardò ancora verso la casa dei vicini. Si vedeva sempre luce alla finestra, ma tutto era silenzio; il padre non doveva essere ancora tornato col suo regalo misterioso.
In mezzo alla mensa sorgeva una piccola torre di focacce tonde e lucide che parevano d’avorio: ciascuno dei commensali ogni tanto si sporgeva in avanti e ne tirava una a sé: anche l’arrosto, tagliato a grosse fette, stava in certi larghi vassoi di legno e di creta: e ognuno si serviva da sé, a sua volontà.
Felle, seduto accanto alla madre, aveva tirato davanti a sé tutto un vassoio per conto suo, e mangiava senza badare più a nulla: attraverso lo scricchiolìo della cotenna abbrustolita del porchetto, i discorsi dei grandi gli parevano lontani, e non lo interessavano più.
Ma quando fu sazio e sentì bisogno di muoversi, ripensò ai suoi vicini di casa: che mai accadeva da loro? E il padre era tornato col dono?
Ma il regalo comprato da lui, dal padre, dov’era?
– Vieni avanti, e va su a vedere – gli disse l’uomo, indovinando il pensiero di lui.
Felle entrò, salì la scaletta di legno, e nella cameretta su, vide la madre di Lia assopita nel letto di legno, e Lia inginocchiata davanti ad un canestro.
– È il nostro primo fratellino – mormorò Lia. – Mio padre l’ha comprato a mezzanotte precisa, mentre le campane suonavano il “Gloria”. Le sue ossa, quindi, non si disgiungeranno mai, ed egli le ritroverà intatte, il giorno del Giudizio Universale. Ecco il dono che Gesù ci ha fatto questa notte.
THE CHRISTMAS GIFT
By Grazia Deledda
The five Lobina brothers, all of them shepherds, were making their way back from the sheepfold to spend Christmas Eve with their family.
It was an exceptional feast for them that year, because their only sister was getting married to a very rich young man.
As is tradition in Sardinia, the husband-to-be had first to send his young fiancée a gift, and then to go and spend the feast day with her family.
And the five brothers wanted to sustain their sister, to show their future brother-in-law that, although they were not as rich as he was, they were strong, healthy and united, like a team of warriors.
They had sent their little brother, Felle, ahead, a strapping youth of eleven with big gentle eyes, dressed in woolly skins like a little Saint John the Baptist; he carried a sack on his shoulders, and inside was a small pig they had just butchered for dinner.
The little town was covered in snow; the black homes, fixed to the mountainside, looked like they were sketched on white cardboard, and the church – on an embankment supported by boulders, surrounded by trees that were weighed down with snow and icicles – looked like one of those fantastic structures formed by the clouds.
Everything was still: the townspeople seemed to be buried under the snow. On the snow-covered lane that led to the house, Felle found no more than a woman’s footprints, and he had fun trying to walk in them. They stopped at the rickety wooden gate that opened onto the courtyard that his family shared with another family of shepherds who were even poorer than they were. The two homes, one on each side of the yard, were so similar they could have been sisters; smoke rose from the chimneys, and a thread of light spilled from the small doors.
Felle whistled to announce his arrival: and, immediately, from the neighbour’s door, a child appeared, her face was red from the cold, and her eyes were filled with joy.
– Welcome home, Felle.
– Hey, Lia! – he called, and walked up to the little door where, along with the light, smoke now escaped the fireplace that was alight in the middle of the kitchen.
Around the fireplace sat Lia’s little sisters; the eldest – but younger than Lia – was passing out raisins and singing a carol, that is, a lullaby for Baby Jesus.
– What have you got here? – asked Lia, touching Felle’s sack. – Oh, the piglet. Your sister’s fiancé sent his maid with a gift too. You’ll have a wonderful feast, – she said with a touch of envy; but then her tone changed, and with an impish smile she added: – and we will, too!
Felle tried to get her to tell him what she was talking about, but Lia closed the door in his face, and he crossed the yard to his own house.
His house really did smell of the festivities: it smelled of baked apple cake, and of cookies made with orange peels and toasted almonds; and Felle found himself gritting his teeth, as if he were already gnawing at all those things, delicious but still hidden from sight.
His sister, tall and slim, was already all dressed up, wearing a green brocade corset and a red and black skirt; framing her pale face was a flowered silk headscarf; and even her shoes were embroidered and had a bow on them: she looked like a young fairy. Meanwhile, her mother, recently widowed, was dressed in black, and although she, too, was pale, she was so grim and haughty that she could easily have been taken for a witch; and her eyes, so similar to Felle’s, had none of his wonderful gentleness.
He pulled the piglet out of his sack: it was red with the blood they had smeared onto the hide. After handing it to his mother, he asked to see the gift his sister’s fiancé had sent. Yes, it was bigger. In fact, it was almost a pig, but the one he had brought was tenderer and not fatty, which meant it would be tastier.
– But what sort of feast will our neighbours have with just a few raisins, while we have these two fine animals? And the cake, and the sweets? – thought Felle with distaste, still annoyed with Lia who, after calling to him, had closed the door in his face.
Then entered the brothers, bringing into the kitchen, first clean and tidy, their heavy snow-packed footprints and their feral smell. They were all strong and handsome, with black eyes and black beards, and were fitted in armor-like waistcoats, worn under sheepskin coats.
When their sister’s fiancé arrived, they all got up, standing beside her, like bodyguards protecting her slim, slight figure; and it was not on account of her fiancé, who was no more than a boy, shy and pleasant, but on account of the man accompanying him.
He was the grandfather of her fiancé. He was an elderly man of over eighty, straight-backed and strong, and dressed in baize and velvet, like a Medieval gentleman, with woolen gaiters on his strong legs. He was the grandfather who had fought for the independence of Italy in his youth. He greeted the five brothers with a military salute, and then looked them over as if they were lined up for inspection.
And they were, all of them, satisfied with what they saw.
The elderly gentleman was given the best seat in the house, near the fireplace; and there they saw, on the breast of his jacket, among the shimmering buttons, a medal of honour, glistening like a small star. The bride-to-be poured him something to drink, then she poured her fiancé something; and as he took his glass from her, he slipped a gold coin into her hand, furtively.
She thanked him with her eyes, then, also furtively, went to show her mother and her brothers the coin, starting from the eldest and working her way down to the youngest, while she brought each a glass filled to the brim.
Felle was last, and he tried to take the coin from her, out of fun, out of curiosity; but she tightened her fist menacingly: she would rather have lost an eye.
The old man lifted his glass, wishing health and happiness to all; and they all echoed his toast in unison.
They then started conversing in an original fashion, that is to say, in song. The old man was a fine impromptu poet: he could improvise well. And the bride’s eldest brother was just as talented.
They challenged each other, reciting octaves on holiday themes; and the others listened on, echoing the lyrics and clapping.
Outside, the church bells sounded, announcing the mass.
It was time to prepare the dinner. Their mother, with the help of Felle, removed the pork legs and stuck them on three long skewers, the handle fixed firmly to the ground.
– You will bring the fourth skewer to our neighbours as a gift – she said to Felle; — they have the right to feast too.
Happily, Felle grabbed the fat juicy leg by the hock and went out into the yard. The night was freezing cold, but calm, and all of a sudden it seemed as if the whole town had awaken in the fantastic light of the snow, because, along with the sound of the church bells, you could hear carolling and cries.
Yet, in the neighbours’ house, all was silent now: even the girls, still waiting near the fire, seemed to have fallen asleep, while dreaming of their marvellous gift.
As soon as Felle entered the room, they stirred, looking at the pork leg that he was swinging left and right like a thurible, but they said nothing: no, that was not the gift they had been waiting for. Then Lia came running down the steps from her room: she accepted his gift without thanking him, and answered Felle’s questions impatiently:
– My mother isn’t feeling well; and my father has gone out to buy something wonderful. Go away.
He was deep in thought when he returned to his house. There were no secrets or pain there: everything was alive, bustling with joy. Christmas had never been so marvellous, not even when his father was still with them. Deep down, however, Felle was saddened by the thought of his neighbours’ strange festivities.
When the church bell rang for the third time, the fiancés grandfather struck his cane against the hearth.
– Come on, boys, get in line.
They all got up to go to mass. Only their mother stayed behind to mind the skewers, which she turned slowly over the fire to make a perfect pork roast.
So, her children, her daughter’s fiancé, and his grandfather, who seemed to be leading his troops, went to church. The snow silenced their steps; hooded figures appeared from every which way, lanterns in hand, projecting fantastic shadows and auras. They exchanged greetings, knocking on doors to summon others to the mass.
Felle walked as if he were in a trance, and he didn’t feel the cold; if anything, to him, the white trees that rose around the church looked like they were covered in almond blossoms. He felt, under his woolly clothes, as warm and happy as a lamb in the May sun; his hair, cold from the snowy air, seemed to be made of grass. He thought of all the good things he would eat after the mass, in his warm house; but remembering that Jesus was born in a cold manger, naked and without food, made him feel like crying, like swathing him in his own robes, and bringing him home with him.
Inside the church, the illusion of spring continued: the altar was decorated with branches of strawberry tree covered in red berries, of myrtle, of laurel; the candles shone among the foliage, and the shadows it created were outlined on the sides, like on the walls of a garden.
There was a Nativity scene in one of the chapels, with a mountain made of cork covered in moss: the three Wise Men were descending cautiously along a steep path, and a golden comet illumined their way.
Everything was beautiful, everything was light and joy. The mighty Kings were leaving their thrones to bring the gift of love and of riches to the son of the poor, to Jesus, who was born in a manger; the stars were guiding their way; the blood of Christ, who would later die for the sake of man, rained on the shrubs making the roses bloom, rained on the trees, making the fruit ripen.
This is what his mother had taught Felle, and it was so.
– Gloria, gloria – sang the priest on the altar; and in response the people said:
– Glory to God in the highest.
And peace on earth, good will towards men.
Felle sang too, and he felt that the joyfulness that was filling his soul was the greatest gift Jesus could give him.
He was a bit cold when they exited the church, because he’d been kneeling on the stony floor, but his happiness had not diminished: it had grown. The smell of roast that escaped the houses made his nostrils flare like those of a famished puppy; and he started running to get home in time to help his mother set the table for dinner. But everything was ready. His mother had placed the linen tablecloth on the pavement on a rattan mat, and other mats were set around it; and as was tradition, she had placed a plate of meat and a hot jug of vincotto, wine with slices of orange peel floating inside it, in the courtyard, under the porch, in case the soul of her late husband should return to this world and need to be fed.
Felle went to see: he set the plate and the jug higher, on a beam on the porch so the wild dogs couldn’t get to it; then he looked towards his neighbour’s house. He could see the lights were on, but all was still; their father probably hadn’t come home yet with their mysterious gift.
Felle went back into the house, and he took an active part in the dinner.
In the middle of the table was a small tower made of flatbread, all so round and shiny they looked like ivory; each of them, in turn, stretched an arm and grabbed one. The roast, too, cut into thick slices, was set on large trays of wood and clay: and each dinner guest could help himself freely.
Felle, sitting near his mother, had dragged a whole tray in front of him, and he ate without a care in the world; through the crackle of the pork rind, he could hear the grown-ups talking. but their voices seemed far off, and what they were saying no longer interested him.
When the yellow cake was served, hot and as bright as the sun, with, all around it, sweets in the shape of hearts, birds, fruit, and flowers, he thought he would faint: he closed his eyes and leaned on his mother’s shoulder. She thought he was crying; but he was laughing with joy.
When he was full and felt the need to get up, he thought about his neighbours again: what was happening there? Had their father come home with their gift?
His curiosity got the better of him, and he went into the yard, sneaking closer to spy on them. The door was ajar; inside the kitchen the little girls were still sitting around the fire, and their father, late, but in time for the festivities, was roasting the pork leg, which his neighbours had given them, on the spit.
But where was the gift he, the father, had bought them?
– Come in, and go upstairs to see for yourself – said their father, guessing his thoughts.
Felle went into the house, climbed the wooden stairs, and in the bedroom saw Lia’s mother sleeping on the wooden bed, while Lia was kneeling in front of a basket.
Inside the basket, swathed in warm blankets, was a newborn baby, a beautiful pink child with two curls on his temples, his eyes wide open.
– He’s our first little brother – whispered Lia. – My father bought him right at midnight, while the church bells were playing “Gloria”. And so his bones will never turn to dust, and they will be intact on the Day of Judgement. This is the gift we received from Jesus tonight.
Translation by ©Matilda Colarossi
One of Italy’s greatest female writers, Grazia Deledda received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1926. Born in Nuoro, Sardinia, apart from her early years of study, she was mostly self-taught. She started writing at a very young age, and was mostly inspired by the life of Sardinian peasants and their struggles.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.