Panettone is a sweet Italian Christmas cake that dates back to the 15th century// Panettone is a sweet Italian Christmas cake that dates back to the 15th century/ © fotolia
© fotolia

PANETTONE is a sweet Italian Christmas cake that dates back to the 15th century. It comes in the shape of the cupola of a church with a tall base and a fluffy top, and contains candied orange, citron, lemon zest as well as raisins. It is generally eaten from Christmas Eve right up to the feast of the Epiphany on January 6th.

I have a cherished memory regarding panettone that occurred many years ago. Before I became a Franciscan friar I belonged to a small group of volunteers guided by Fr. Giuseppe Ungaro, a friar of the Basilica of St. Anthony. We had chosen to call ourselves: ‘The Friends of St. Francis.’

Besides praying together and meditating on Franciscan spirituality, we looked after some 30 families who lived in a rundown area on the outskirts of Padua. We brought them food staples, helped their children do their homework and, if necessary, paid their electricity bills.

In the days leading up to Christmas 1974, a generous donor had given us a batch of some thirty panettoni to be distributed to poor families in that suburb. We therefore decided to take one panettone to each family on Christmas Eve, accompanying the gift with a few Christmas carols along the way.

It was an astounding success. Everyone was joyous, and many had tears running down their cheeks as we sang ‘O Holy Night’. They hugged and kissed us warmly, and wished us the best Christmas ever.

One of the last ones we visited was Ringo’s family. Ringo was a huge, imposing man, and he was well known to the police because of the numerous thefts he had been charged with as well as an un-substantiated accusation of murder. He forced his wife to prostitute herself, and their two daughters were terrified by his frequent outbursts of anger. I was never able to ascertain his real name, but he let himself be called Ringo, the name of a spaghetti-western character.

When we got to his makeshift dwelling all the lights were out. We knew, however, that someone was in because we had seen one of the girls behind the window, so we kept knocking on the door and singing ‘O Holy Night’. Finally a light was switched on, and Ringo’s wife opened the door. We found ourselves in an untidy room where the atmosphere was extremely tense. The two girls, however, immediately ran towards us, and soon afterwards Ringo himself walked into the room and welcomed us warmly. We offered him the panettone, which he accepted with a smile and then, quite unexpectedly, he sang along with us. Peace had come into that house.

On Christmas Day Ringo’s wife went to the Basilica of St. Anthony to thank Father Giuseppe for his wonderful boys and girls: “If they had not come last night,” she said to Fr. Giuseppe, “Ringo would have beaten me to death.” He was furious because his wife had refused to sell her body on Christmas Eve. The ‘Friends of St. Francis’ had therefore given her the best Christmas gift possible: her own life.

A few days later Ringo was arrested, and his wife and two daughters took the opportunity to escape to some far-away place. That modest Christmas gift, a panettone, had changed a family’s life for the better – perhaps it had even saved a life.

We Christians often forget that Christmas is the symbol of a gift; a gift that has changed human history: the birth of Christ. God offers his only-begotten son, Jesus, to all people on earth, and Jesus, in his turn, gives us a further gift: a place in the Kingdom of God.

It is therefore fitting that we celebrate and rejoice during this Christmas season because God’s gift means that death no longer has any real power over us, and that our lives have been redeemed.

Reconnecting Christmas to its real roots and meaning should therefore be our main purpose as we prepare ourselves for the coming of the Lord.

I believe that my mother was right when, on St. Stephen’s Day (Boxing Day), she used to exclaim, “It’s 364 days to our next Christmas. Let’s get ready for it!”

Updated on December 06 2016