Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Falo – Allerona’s Party of the Year

There are some murky traditions in little Italian towns like Allerona. Some have their origins in pagan times, when prayers and sacrifices were made to the gods of the harvest. These have mostly been Christianized, but one doesn’t need to look too deep to see their pantheistic roots.
The guys start hauling wood in the cold early morning air.
This calls for wine and bacon.

Then, there are those traditions that started more recently, with a bunch of guys who like to drink wine, play with matches and remember a dear friend.

I’m talking about the Falo, our annual town bonfire. It’s one of the few non-religious parties we throw here in Allerona. There are no processions or masses or benedictions—there’s just a big bonfire, a bunch of people, a lot of wine, and of course, pork. Other than the Feast of the 7 Fishes, I don’t think Italians can have a proper party without consuming a lot of pork.

Paolo and a group of his friends founded—or rather, refounded—the Falo four years ago, as a way to remember their friend Stefano, who had died the year before. Paolo recalls similar holiday bonfires when he was a little boy, but the tradition had died away well before he reached adulthood, until the guys brought it back in tribute to Stefano. The first year, the bonfire was held in the piazza della chiesa…our town’s most important piazza, surrounded by houses on three sides and the church on the fourth. That was a big hit with the people in attendance, but there were legitimate concerns that it would a) smoke out the neighbors b) catch someone’s house on fire or—and this was the most credible risk—c) crack the paving stones of the piazza with its immense heat. Mostly, those not in attendances were annoyed with the noise levels of those in attendance, and said solidly, “Never again.”
You know what a tough job like this calls for?
Mmm, bacon...

So the next year—the year I arrived in Allerona, the Falo got moved to the campo sportivo, which is our town soccer field. Though it lacks the intimacy of the piazza, it allows for a bigger bonfire, reduces the risk of revelers dying from smoke inhalation and doesn’t scare our town priest, Don Luigi, that the church is going to burn to the ground. Plus, there are no neighbors to piss off.

Paolo and his friends keep several appointments in the run-up to the Falo, all of which, naturally, involve drinking wine and eating lots of pork products. 
One early morning in early February, they meet at their friend Fabio’s house (see, there are real live Italians named Fabio, not just proboscidean Italian-American models) and have breakfast, which consists of wine, bread, and grilled ventresca (thick-sliced bacon) and sausages. 
Lots of small fires are lit to cook the bacon.

Then they set out to find wood. With several trucks and tractors, they scour the “white roads”—the unpaved dirt tracks that delve deep into our forests—for fallen trees. These they gather up and transport back to Fabio’s, who has plenty of open space, and neighbors disinclined to call Code Enforcement. The trees are cut into logs and stacked in his yard, where they will stay and dry out until autumn.  This year, because Fabio’s dad several years ago planted rows of pine trees way too close together, they cut several of these mature trees as well, as they were choking each other out.

Sometime in November, another breakfast with an identical menu is held at Fabio’s. This time, the guys load all the wood onto trucks, and transport it to the campo sportivo, where it will sit, covered, for several weeks.

That big 'un in the back is the main event
everyone is waiting for.
Both of these breakfast events sound simple enough…tuck into a hearty breakfast and then get to work. But much like the vendemmia, all work and no play is just not the Italian style. So the guys drink, dawdle, play cards, or play “Morra,” a hand-game where each player throws out a number between one and five with his fingers, while simultaneously shouting the total he thinks his and his opponents hand will add up to. I don’t know why they have to shout, or how they keep the numbers straight in their heads, especially since with their free hand they are keeping a running tally of the rounds they’ve won. (See video above for a Morra demonstration, with a wine assist...)

Paolo usually comes back from these breakfast missions around 11 am, hoarse from playing Morra, reeking just a little bit from the cigarette or two he bummed from a friend, a bit dehydrated and not very hungry for lunch.

And so it begins..
A week or so before the Falo, the guys set off on their third and final pre-bonfire mission: to stack the wood for the fire. This is done in an evening and yes, there is wine and grilled pork products involved. Paolo comes home and inevitably reports to me how this year’s bonfire is bigger than ever, and he’s always right.

The Falo always takes place December 23, unless it gets rained out. Townspeople start gathering around 7 pm, when a series of small cooking fires is lit at the campo. A couple of the guys have already gone to the store to stock up on sausages, ventresca and loaves of bread. People usually bring something to share, like a wheel of cheese or a platter or tozzetti—the biscotti like cookies that everyone eats around Christmastime. There is a cardboard box with a slot at the top for offerte or donations of 2, 5 or 10 euro to cover the cost of the food. Someone brings a stereo system. There’s always lots of wine, and it’s always several people’s home brew, and there are always whispered debates about whose homemade wine is good and whose is schifo (gross) or troppo dolce (too sweet).

Getting warmer now...
Around 9 pm, the big bonfire gets lit. And by big, I mean ginormous—it’s about 3 stories tall. It’s quickly consumed by flames, and the effect is nothing short of mesmerizing. Though the heat soon drives us all several meters back from the fire, children, adults, seniors, men and women alike are all hypnotized by the undulating flames licking the sky, the crackling wood and the intense heat radiating on our faces.

A pyramid-shaped piece of wood tops the Falo every year, and once it falls—always into the infernal center of the structure—it signals the turning point for the fire. Though it may burn for several more hours, the pinnacle falling means that those who are tired can go home—they’ve seen the best of the show—and the rest of us can go back to eating, talking, and dancing.

Lots of people, Paolo and me included—at least when I’m not pregnant or breastfeeding—leave the Falo a little tipsy and not quite walking in a straight line. No one has far to go to get home. We leave our coats outside where the smoke can air out of them, and still wake up in the morning with our hair, skin and bed-sheets smelling of wood smoke. 

Can't...stop...looking at the flames...
But that’s okay. The Falo happens only once a year, and it’s always a good party. I’m sure Paolo’s friend Stefano would have enjoyed it immensely. And next year, like the guys always say, it will be even bigger.

Scroll down for a short video of the 2010 Falo, complete 
with dancing. 


  1. Looks like a Fantastic time was had by all! We all should be remembered so well.

  2. I don't know. Still sounds pretty pagan to me.