Sunday, October 9, 2011

Thanksgiving, tractors and turkey

In Canada, thanksgiving is celebrated on the second Monday in October. In the United States, it’s the third Thursday in November. In Vigolo Marchese in the province of Piacenza in Emilia Romagna, it’s the second Sunday in October (this year).

Thanksgiving in the town of Vigolo is not quite Thanksgiving as we know it, although there is turkey and chestnuts! The main event focuses on the blessing of the tractors. The blessing has been bestowed by the local parish priest every year for as long as anyone can remember. One of the local farmers, a cheerful, burly hulk of a man who was waiting next to his John Deer along with his two equally solid-looking sons told me that he still remembers driving on the back of his grandfather’s tractor to Vigolo for the annual blessing. That was over 50 years ago!

The likelihood is that today’s mechanized blessing is an evolution of the longstanding tradition of a formal thanksgiving for the annual harvest. It therefore has parallels with Thanksgiving in the American sense which owes its origins to the time when Europeans first started arriving in the Americas, bringing with them their own harvest festival traditions.

Agricultural harvests have always been occasions of celebration in Italy and, like all celebrations in Italy, they always involve food. Just a couple of weeks back the vendemmia, or grape harvest, was celebrated with an uphill barrel-rolling competition followed by grape pudding (known locally as mosto cotto) and a delicious sweet bread, made with dried grapes from the previous year’s harvest, served with a selection of local cheeses. A week later the chestnut harvest was celebrated through a myriad of chestnut festivals in towns throughout the region. In Vigolo, local farmers are simply celebrating the end of the summer harvest, a time to give thanks, relax and enjoy the fruits of their labour.

The main event takes place in the small piazza facing the medieval church and baptistery in the centre of town. It begins without warning, mid afternoon, with a loud rumbling sound like distant thunder. There’s a dull trembling in the ground, faint at first, but gradually building. Then they appear, a solid line of tractors, hundreds of them, every make, every model, every colour, slowly descending like a line of liberating tanks. The air fills with the smell of diesel as the tractors circle the small piazza. The noise is deafening and exhilarating at the same time. Then, as suddenly as the noise started, it ends. Engines turn silent and, perfectly on cue, the priest emerges, a bible in one hand and a vial of holy water in the other. All heads lower as a short benediction is read, his right hand is raised to the sky and the blessing is bestowed. A sprinkling of holy water, each tractor in turn and then it’s time for turkey.

It arrives, of course, on the back of a tractor. Five birds in all, roasted to a golden, crisp brown perfection. The aroma is heavenly, mixed with the smell of chestnuts roasting on an open fire. Wine bottles are opened and glasses are filled. A local butcher arrives with an armful of homemade salami. Thick wedges are cut and served on top of chunks of rustic country bread. There may well be turkey and chestnuts but ultimately, it’s a very Italian thanksgiving.

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