There is a great scene in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol when the ghost of Christmas Present brings Ebenezer Scrooge to the holiday celebrations at the home of his nephew Fred. Their ghostly visit is to be short, but Scrooge begs the spirit to stay for a little bit longer so that he can watch the merriment of people playing Christmas games. In this part of the story, Dickens touches upon an important aspect of Christmas. Besides the gifts and food, games are an important part of the holiday.
For the Molfettesi in America this can mean an assortment of amusements. Since many of us are descended from sailors, longshoreman and construction workers it should come to no surprise that poker games break out in-between the servings of fish, panettone, fruit and coffee. However, the true game of “Molfie” Christmas is the one brought over from the old country, a distant ethnic cousin of BINGO, known to us as Tombola. Essentially, the rules of Tombola are similar to other Lotto-based pastimes. A “caller” picks a number and players mark off that number on their scorecards. If a player gets two in a row, they shout out AMBO and are then awarded a small percentage of the pot. Three numbers in the row is known as TERNO, four in a row, QUATERNA, while five in a row is QUINDINA (or Cinquina if you want to speak proper Italian). Finally, the whole card must be filled in order to win the grand prize. Often, players fill their scorecards with little bits of Clementine skin that they have cleverly pieced off to better mark their numbers when actual chips are scarce. The bits of Clementine are symbolic of the ethos practiced by many in the Molfettesi community, waste nothing and improvise when necessary.
Winning the game is fun, but the real amusement of Tombola stems from the silly names traditionally given to each of the 90 numbers on the scoreboard. For example, the number 35 is in jail for some reason and whenever that number pops out of the bag, someone dutifully announces that “tréndacìnghë: stè ngalé” (35 is in Jail!). The number 77 represents the legs of some long-legged female member of the family or simply “rë gghêmmë dë Sophia Loren!” Many of the number associations are not very appealing; with the number 11 representing “lë purcë,” or fleas, and 16 designated for “Pezzidde du caulë,” (no translation necessary).
The origins of this number-name system stem from the early lotto games conducted in Italy during the late middle ages. Lotto in Italy began in Florence and Venice during the early 1500s and eventually made its way down to the superstitious cities of the south, particularly Naples. There the game initiated the sale of books known as la Smorfia, which contain secrets of numerology, some say originating from the ancient practice of Kabala. The idea was that whenever someone dreamt of a certain person or occurrence, they were to associate it with the appropriate number and then play that number in the lotto. For example, if you were to dream of a crazy person it would be prudent to play the number 22, as it is the number for il pazzo according to the Smorfio.
However, each region of Italy has its own Smorfio tradition, with Molfetta’s version differing greatly from the Neapolitan edition. To view an example of a classic tombola board from 1800s Molfetta, visit the following site: http://www.tombolamolfettese.it/
Buon Natale from the Molfetta Heritage Club!