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In centuries past, the roaring fire of the Ceppo carried numerous superstitions, most associated with good luck. But but make sure the fire doesn’t go out before the night is over and rememberto save the ashes and a piece of unburnt wood for the hext year.
Throughout Italy, Festa di Ceppo – the Festival of the Log – is a beloved and time-honored tradition. The event begins on Christmas Eve, when a giant log is set ablaze symbolizing the commencement of the twelve days of Christmas. The Ceppo tradition dates back to pagan times when the lighting of the log symbolized the power of life and the reborn sun of the winter solstice. To the pagans, each fire was meant to give the sun more strength.
In the fourth century AD, when Pope Julius I decided to celebrate Christmas around the time of the Winter Solstice, the Yule log tradition continued, but the fire came to represent the light of the Savior instead of the light of the sun. On Christmas Eve, a huge log was brought into a large hall of a town or into homes of families. The town leader or the head of the household would gather everyone together and lay the log on a bed of juniper. Everyone would sing “Ave Maria del Ceppo” as children danced. All would then enjoy a meal together and place offerings of wine and coins upon the Ceppo. Faults, mistakes and bad choices were burned in the flame so everyone’s New Year would start with a clean slate. The log was never allowed to burn completely and a bit was kept in the house to start next year’s log.
The Ceppo was believed to bring good luck. Any pieces that were kept were thought to protect the house from fire and lightning. Ashes of the log would be placed in wells to keep the water flowing. They were also placed at the roots of fruit trees and vines to help them bear a good harvest.
However, the log could also be a harbinger of bad luck. If the fire went out before the night was through, it was thought that tragedy would strike the home in the coming year. If its flame cast someone’s shadow without a head, supposedly that person would die within the year. Though some beliefs that were once associated with the burning of the log are long gone, the Italian tradition of the Ceppo remains.
The Other Ceppo
While for many Italians, the Ceppo refers to a yule log, but not all associate the Ceppo with a log burning in the fireplace. For these Italians, the Ceppo refers to a pyramid shaped structure made of wood. This tiered tree was believed to have started in the region of Tuscany. The tree would contain three to five shelves and the frame would be decorated with fringe. On the bottom shelf the family would display their treasured presepio and the remaining shelves would contain greenery, fruit, nuts and presents.
The presepio represented the gift of God, the fruit and nuts symbolized the gifts of the earth and the presents signified the gifts of man. The top of the Ceppo would be adorned by an angel, a star or a pineapple, the symbol of hospitality. Some families would attach candles on the outside of each shelf and light them. This is why the Ceppo is often referred to as the “Tree of Light.”