Still Owing an Ode to AlessandroJuly 26th isn’t my birthday but farm friends will be calling in any case to wish me “auguri, Anna” on my onomastico (name day): July 26th is the Festa di Sant’Anna, the mother of the Blessed Virgin and one of Italy’s most venerated saints with over sixty churches dedicated to her throughout the peninsula. Due to diffuse infant mortality in the Middle Ages, devotion to Sant’Anna reached its peak and she became not only the saint of pregnant women but was also invoked by sterile women and nursing mothers (as mother’s milk was linked to infant survival).
Certainly, our farm friends were not versed in the historic traditions of the Sant’Anna cult but no matter: every pregnant rural woman visiited the nearest shrine or church dedicated to Sant’Anna, praying to her for a healthy pregnancy and easy labor. And if the expectant mother could not make that visit for herself, someone did it for her: in 1984, our elderly farm neighbor Alessandro, did it for me.
It was July 26, 1984 and I was a few months’ pregnant with our Giulia (born the following January). I was bouncing down our dirt road on my motorbike, passing the farm of Alessandro, his son Rufino and and family. Alessandro must have been well over seventy at the time. As always, he was standing in the farmyard, near the road, surveying any passing traffic (there never was much: maybe a vehicle or two a day) and he waved at me to stop as I went by. He put his gnarled hands on the motorbike handlebars and gently reminded me that “oggi Ã© la Festa di Sant’Anna e…” (“today is the Feast of St. Anne and…”) – adding a touch of fatherly advice…“non ti scordare di andare su a dirle una parola” (…”don’t forget to head up there to put in a word to her”…).I promised that I certainly would go up to the Church of Sant’Anna, a small rural chapel, up a mountain road, about four kilometers away.
For one reason or another, I didn’t.
The next day as I scooted past on my motorbike, Alessandro again waved me down. He put out his hand and handed me a Sant’Anna santino (“holy card”). With a twinkle in his eye, he told me that he had doubts that I would go to Sant’Anna to ask her help at childbirth – so he had walked up to her church for me.
I wrote “An Ode to Alessandro” some years ago. Looking at our lovely Giulia these days, I know I still owe him an ode. Pino certainly agrees!
Curiosities: Sant’Anna is also the patron saint of widows, chidlren, grandparents, seamstresses, cloth merchants, carpenters, glove-makers, miners, goldsmiths, laundry owners, and the dying. In some rural areas, women do not sew nor embroider, nor do washing on July 26th. Near Deruta, braided onion bunches are sold at a street fair on her feast (and farmers know they must pull up all the onions before July 26th!). In Umbria, pregnant rural women take candles or plants as “gifts” to Sant’Anna to churches dedicated to her, praying for a healthy pregnancy and easy labor.
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