Monthly Archives: January 2024

Chiacciere for Carnevale

Carnevale, the pre-Lenten season of extravagance, began this past weekend in Venice.  There are some places in Italy where the Carnival season begins as soon as Epiphany has passed, but Venice to me always seems like the gold standard of Carnival celebrations. I love its High Baroque style: the elaborate costumes, the masks, the harlequin. It is another of the many celebrations we don’t pay much attention to here in the States, except perhaps in the cities that were settled by the French: New Orleans and Mobile come to mind, and Key West, too (and that is probably not so much a French influence but more a simple fact that the Conchs in our state’s southern-most city love a good party).

Carnevale––these days preceding Lent––is extreme in its extravagance purposefully, for the forty days of Lent that follow are extreme in the opposite direction: a season of fasting and penitence. Those forty somber days, a sort of cleansing and putting things in order, are instituted by the Church, but even without the religious aspect, some semblance of this would be necessary. Food, one must remember, was not as easy to come by in years past as it is now. Even I––and I am not that old––can remember winter, when I was a kid, being a time of canned and frozen fruits and vegetables. Imagine things a century or two ago: By this time, as winter drags on in its approach to spring, food stores would be running low and some fasting, whether penitential or not, would certainly be necessary.

But that is Lent and this is not. Before the fast comes, we are granted time to be extravagant and to celebrate and to make good use of all the things that will soon be forbidden. Carnival is a time of parades and street festivals while inside, it is a time for clearing out the larder. All the sausages, all the roasts, all the eggs, all the milk and cheese… it all had to go now.

Traditional festive foods for Carnevale vary throughout Italy, but many, especially the sweets, are fried. It is even thought that the ever popular Cannoli, the Italian dessert known around the world, originated as a Carnevale treat from Sicily. A simpler Carnevale recipe to try, and a favorite throughout Italy at this time of year, is for a delicately fried sweet called Chiacciere. They take their name from the Italian for chatter, or gossip, but we’re talking here not about gossip but about strips of lemon-scented dough, twisted and fried crisp and dusted with confectioners’ sugar. Here’s a typical recipe for Chiacciere. You’ve got some time to ponder making these treats. My sister will probably be making some before Lent begins; we’ll be enjoying them, and if you try them, too, let us know!

And so Carnevale has just begun and it will continue this year through the 13th of February, which is Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday, and it is Ash Wednesday that marks the beginning of Lent. Shrove Tuesday is a day to eat pancakes for supper. That is a particularly British custom, and here in this land settled first by English Puritans, this is what most Americans know about the season of Carnival. And while it is no comparison to Carnevale in Venice, still, pancakes for supper is not such a bad thing. In Italian, that day is Martedi Grosso; in French, it is Mardi Gras, and those are words we all know and associate especially with New Orleans and Mobile.

Nowadays the restrictions of Lent are pretty easy: the only hard and fast rule is no meat on Fridays. In times past, though, Lent was indeed a time of serious fasting: no meat, no eggs, no fun, no nothing. But again: these things are days and days away. For now, all we need to know is it’s time to enjoy a bit of extravagance.


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Image: “Carnival in Venice” by Aleksandra Exter. Oil on canvas, circa 1930s, via Wikimedia Commons.

Old Long Since

We began the month singing “Auld Lang Syne” as New Year’s Eve welcomed in a new year, and now, close to January’s close, we get to sing it again. It is Burns Night: the night we celebrate the birth of Scottish poet Robert Burns. Rabbie Burns wrote many songs, and there is nothing in particular about “Auld Lang Syne” that makes it a New Year’s song, and yet it has fallen into place there at the start of the year. And as much as we tend to think of the new year as a time to look ahead, January, named for the Roman god Janus, who looks both forward and backward, has long been seen as a time for remembering. This is what Rabbie Burns’ song is all about, for the words auld lang syne translate essentially to old long since, or old times.

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and auld lang syne?

For auld lang syne, my jo,
for auld lang syne,
we’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

And there’s a hand, my trusty fiere!
and gie’s a hand o’ thine!
And we’ll tak a right gude-willy waught,
for auld lang syne.

And it is right, I think, and it is good, to spend some of our time in this act of remembering: of putting things back together (re-membering: re-connecting). Especially tonight, when we remember Robert Burns and all those who love him. He was a sentimental poet, Robert Burns, and for those of us who love poetry, or who love Rabbie Burns, or even those of us who love Christmas, for soon the Yuletide greenery and lights must come down as we approach Candlemas Eve and St. Brigid’s Day… we come to a time in the Wheel of the Year where we might get a bit sentimental ourselves. But we need this on occasion: a cup o’ kindness, and the laughter and the tears that come with remembering.

And so it was the 25th of January in 1759 at Burns Cottage at Alloway in Scotland that Robert Burns was born. He did not live a long life, alas, but in 1801, five years after the poet’s death, the first recorded Burns Night supper was celebrated. It’s been celebrated around the world all these years since: people gathered ’round a table for a meal and for drinks (sometimes many drinks) and for readings and recitations of the Bard of Scotland’s poetry, and yes, to remember. And as each Burns Night supper concludes, with one more toast of whisky, all join hands and sing “Auld Lang Syne.” To be sure, there are worse ways one might spend a cold winter’s night.

A word to the wise: One week from tonight, from Burns Night, it will be Candlemas Eve, and if you have been joining us in celebrating a Slow Christmas, Candlemas Eve is the night when, traditionally, all vestiges of the Yuletide greenery are to be removed. Candlemas Eve comes at the close of St. Brigid’s Day, and it is Brigid who bridges us from winter toward spring. Plan accordingly!


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Image: “Robert Burns” by Peter Taylor. Oil on panel, circa 1787, National Galleries Scotland [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.

Agnes Sweet & Agnes Fair

Last March, we lost a wonderful writer called Helen Barolini. I never knew of her work until I accidentally stumbled upon one of her books, Festa: Recipes and Recollections of Italian Holidays (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988) at a library book sale. I was drawn immediately to the title and the cover, as you might expect, and I spent a dollar on that book, one of my better investments. What a treasure it is. The book covers Italian celebrations throughout the year, another Book of Days of sorts. And though I will go long spells without pulling it off my bookshelf, I always think of Helen Barolini on this night, this 20th of January, because of something she wrote in that book about this night, St. Agnes Eve, the night before the Feast of St. Agnes of Rome, patron saint of young girls and Girl Scouts.

A bit about St. Agnes Eve customs first: tradition tells us that this is a night for romantic divination. I think of it as our first step toward the romance of St. Valentine’s Day. It has long been held as a night when young girls might expect to see visions of their future loves. In Italy, they might go to bed tonight without supper, quite voluntarily, so that they might dream of their future husbands. In Scotland, where Agnes is a common name (as is its reverse version, Segna), they will go to bed sated, but may stay up later than usual. There, the custom is to throw grain onto the soil of a field at midnight while reciting the following spell:

Agnes sweet and Agnes fair,
Hither, hither, now repair;
Bonny Agnes, let me see
The lad who is to marry me.

In other places, young girls will be baking cakes with the hope that their future husbands will come and turn them, or they will be walking to bed backwards with the hope that their future husbands will come to them in their dreams, or they will be eating a hard boiled egg before bed, yolk removed, the cavity filled with salt. The hope there, too, is to see their future husband. (With any luck, he’ll be carrying a pitcher of water, as well.)

Helen Barolini’s touching passage about St. Agnes Eve in her book Festa is about meeting, and losing, the love of her life, the writer Antonio Barolini: And though I fasted and hoped to see my intended as I slept on that eve, I never did picture Antonio Barolini in my imagination or in my dreams. But now I think how strange it is that his death came on January 21, Saint Agnes Eve.

She made an error in the day (January 21 is St. Agnes Day, not St. Agnes Eve), but still, that passage remains for me a poignant one. Our joys, our sorrows, intertwined, like the intimate dance of saints’ days and old customs that, in most cases, predate those days. These are the old stories that fascinate me.

For us English Majors, perhaps the first thing we think of most when we hear the words St. Agnes Eve is the Romantic narrative poem written by John Keats in 1820. It makes for fine reading this night, full, as it is, with the romance and ghostly apparitions one expects from a poem of that era, perfect for a cold wintry night like St. Agnes Eve. But it is a commitment, for it is a very long poem, indeed. Here, if you can’t read the poem in its entirety, is the sixth stanza:

They told her how, upon St. Agnes’ Eve,
Young virgins might have visions of delight,
And soft adorings from their loves receive
Upon the honey’d middle of the night.
If ceremonies due they did aright,
As, supperless to bed they must retire,
And couch supine their beauties, lily white;
Nor look behind, nor sideways, but require
Of Heaven with upward eyes for all that they desire.

And though I’ve hundreds of books in my bookcase that I’ve purchased over the years and not yet read, I am once again reading Helen Barolini’s Festa. Her book begins in December, which is not at all a bad place to begin a year, as so much of January is wrapped up still in the celebrations of midwinter. Christmas songs are still in my head as I go about my days, and I am still at work on this year’s Copperman’s Day print. I may very well be working on it tonight, this wintry St. Agnes Eve… perhaps even upon the honey’d middle of the night.


At our online catalog right now use discount code LOVEHANDMADE to save $10 on your $85 purchase, plus get free domestic shipping, too. Spend less and our flat rate shipping fee of $9.50 applies. If you’ve not taken a look lately at what Convivio Bookworks has to offer, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at what you’ll find here… plus you know we appreciate your support immensely. CLICK HERE to shop.


My apologies to subscribers: This was meant to be published before I went to bed on Friday night, but I was so tired, I forgot to do so. As a result, subscribers will receive notice of this newest chapter of the Convivio Book of Days on January 21. Perhaps I am just tuning into the spirit of Helen Barolini, who had confused the date of St. Agnes Eve in her book. At any rate: my apologies if you’ve missed a chance at romantic divination for St. Agnes Eve, and if perchance you were not planning on divination, then that’s fine: just enjoy the read.

Our image today is an illustration for another poem called “St. Agnes Eve,” this one by Tennyson: more religious, less romantic, but just as cold and snowy. Wood engraving by the Dalziel Brothers after a design by Sir John Everett Millais. Published in Some Poems by Alfred Lord Tennyson, Edward Moxon Edition, 1857. Royal Academy Collection, London, via Wikimedia Commons.