Background for the 2010 Advent feature.
Calabria is in the far south of Italy – it is the ‘toe’ of the Italian peninsula, the bit that looks like it's kicking Sicily. This is one of the poorer regions of Italy. In the nineteenth century many Calabrians emigrated to other countries to find work and this trend still continues.
Calabria is very mountainous. Many of the hills are still covered by thick forests. In summer it is very hot. In winter it rains on the coast, while inland the mountains are often covered in thick snow. There is even something of skiing industry developing.
The figures used in this Advent Calendar were made in the town of Nicastro in central Calabria. They are called ‘pastorelli’ (little shepherds). They were made by a couple called Antonio and Maria Fusto. Antonio was born in 1876 and worked as a potter. He made these pastorelli at home in his spare time, using local clay and ordinary house paint to decorate them. His wife Maria was known as ‘Maria I liegnu’ – which meant, in the local dialect, ‘Maria the Stick’ – because she was thin and dry, like the pole of a broom. She sold the pastorelli in the local market and in front of the church of San Domenico.
The clothes that the figures wear and their activities reflect the life of ordinary Calabrian people before the spread of modern amenities after World War Two. Some old ladies still wear traditional costumes when they go to the market but, like the pastorelli, such things have now almost disappeared. Nativity figures can still be bought, but they are often factory made and sometimes reflect TV celebrity culture.
The pastorelli are crudely made and easily chip, but they are also charming and, in their earthiness, seem appropriate for a festival that celebrates the point at which God took on human flesh, with all its flaws and limitations.
Culham/Reep would like to thank Prof. Umberto Zaffina, the curator of the ethnographic Museum Luogo della Memoria in Sambiase, Calabria, who provided information and several of the photographs. Many thanks also to Pascale and Isa Zaffina.
Information (in Italian) about the Luogo della Memoria can be found