Neroni sits in his window on a frosty morning in early December and sees the local artisans hurrying up the lane to Chiesa di San Nicolo, or St. Nicholas' Church. He decides he wants to get in the unofficial parade and cries at the door until Nonni lets him out. He scurries down the steps and turns into the cobblestone lane and then turns right up the narrow street that leads to the church. So many things happen at this time of year, now that the olive harvest is over, and Neroni is always curious about what he might see or even better, taste.
Neroni had walked unobserved into church this past Sunday, the first Sunday in Advent, to watch the lighting of the first purple candle nestled in the large wreath sitting on a stand close to the altar. The child who lit the candle is one of Neroni's favorites, as she always pets and strokes him and has tib bits for him to eat, such as bites of cheese and chicken. The singing in church was so sweet, too, that he sat down on a coat lying on a back pew and fell asleep while the priest spoke his words of preparation for the coming day of celebration, Christmas. But, we are getting ahead of ourselves, here.
Today, Neroni notes, the artisans are carrying the members of the Holy Family, well, statues of them,that is, in their arms, to set them into the presepe, or manger scene, at the church. Neroni recalls hearing about how that wonderful Saint Frances, who came from just down the way in Assisi, with the help of Giovanni Vellita, thought of setting up the very first creche, and the tradition of having artists create landscapes and beautiful statues for the scene soon traveled all over Europe, and now countries all over the world have their own versions. Neroni runs and rubs on the leg of the man carrying the Madonna, hoping to catch a glimpse of her loving face, but the man only tells him,"Be careful, Neroni, before you get stepped on. We need to get this done. There are more parts to bring to the church. Do not get in the way." As he mostly follows human directions, he trots along side this instant procession.
When they get to the church, the artisans begin to do their magic, arranging, freshening the paint, applying new cloth, renailing parts of the creche that have come lose, and singing, always singing. From the church hall, the smell of fresh coffee and cream, pannetone, and warm biscotti entices Neroni to leave the manger scene to find the source of these wonderful scents and to hint with a meow that he would appreciate some cream. He is indulged and licks his lips of the smooth, white cream which he adores. Satisfied with his ability to have turned on his charm to get such a treat, he returns home to find everyone excited about the coming feast day of San Nicolo, St. Nicholas, himself, for whom the church was named.
Neroni has often told his American cousin, Sylvan the Cat, that Italian children are not so familiar with this character known as Santa Claus, but everyone knows that the old elf with a pipe in his mouth is a descendant of St. Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra, who was generous and who became the patron saint of children, sailors, and those wrongly imprisoned. But Advent is not about Santa Claus, it is a time for reflection, for house cleaning, for getting things in order before the Christmas feast. So, Neroni understands as the family gets ready on December 5 for San Nicolo's day on December 6 by putting their shoes outside their doors. As Neroni sniffs each shoe, he finds inside a carrot and a bit of straw for San Nicolo's horse. He knows this is good for he has seen both the horse and the saint. The house is quiet, as the children study and prepare their homework for the next day, and Mama and Nonni set the table and prepare the soup and salad for the evening meal. Neroni settles into his blanket covered chair and drifts off into a pleasant late afternoon nap as sweet songs are softly playing on the IPod docking station, which sits next to Nonni's old radio. After 30 minutes of solid sleep and as he makes a turn around on the blanket, he spies both women writing something while the soup puts out its delicious aroma. His eyes slowly close again in dreams of some of the soup for his dinner, too, as it is pollo, or chicken.
The next morning, December 6, Neroni jumps down from his toasty warm blanket and stretches, oh those back leg muscles are tight. He has heard the noise from the kitchen and sees the table reset for breakfast in the prettiest red cloth, shiny dishes, and wonderful small statues of San Nicolo arranged in the middle. The children chatter about what they have found in their shoes from the the beloved saint: chocolate candies, a tiny flashlight, a new pair of mittens to keep away the cold, and letters that are to be brought to the table to share. Each person, including Mama, Papa, and Nonni, has found a letter from the saint in his or her shoe. They read aloud what the saint has noticed about their growth in character, changing good habits for bad ones, and noting the works of kindness for others that they have accomplished but not always made public, as well as suggesting that this coming year should continue to bring improvement.
Neroni sits on Nonni's lap as these lovely humans, his umani, read their letters. He tilts his head and looks straight at their faces, for he has witnessed these changes, too. Nonni rubs his gorgeous black fur, and he waits patiently for the breakfast to begin, cafe latte, eggs and pane, and some delectable grape jelly. Pietro, the youngest child, gives him a bit of cream and a bite of his eggs for his treat for the morning, his gift from San Nicolo, for his love of his family and good behavior, which includes staying off the kitchen counter, scratching only the post with the carpet (Nonni will scold him if he goes near the sofa edge), and waiting until at least 6:00 am before the first word of CAT comes out of his mouth. He, too, knows in what areas he needs to improve. Then he oversees the children out the door to school, the kitchen cleaned up, and then leaps up to his blanket again, as it is time for his mid-morning nap, time to dream again about San Nicolo and that horse of his, before it is time to sit by his window and watch....