New Year’s bread

Yuval Harari writes in Sapiens, that the last truly great invention of mankind was agriculture, which completely transformed human society. Eight thousand years ago, during the process called the Neolithic Revolution, humanity was transformed from a loose network of free hunters into a complex production machine, whose calorie-producing efficiency was much higher, but its operation tied up all of mankind’s energy.

The top product and emblem of this machinery is bread, which, in addition to its primary energy-carrying and nourishing function, has also become the most comprehensive symbol and one of the main means of communication, the most important human activity according to anthropology. Donating and offering bread accompanies the most significant moments of human and divine communication. And from the Neolithic onwards, we find thousands of stamps that reinforce the communicative role of bread with various patterns.

In most European cultures, breads and cakes with such stamps and figures have largely disappeared. But in Sardinia, where the Neolithic is still present in everyday life in the form of thousands of imposing stone buildings, the offering and donation of decorated breads – su coccoi pintau – is still an important part of the holidays. And their patterns often resemble Neolithic motifs.

The pictures of the breads and archival photos come from the exhibition of the Museo Etnografico in Nuoro

The festive breads are usually consecrated in the church before giving them as gifts. In such cases, the priest and the poor also receive from the loaves.

One of the most important festive occasions is a wedding. In the three days before, the bride and her female relatives – sas manus bellas, “the beautiful hands” – gather at the bride’s house to prepare the wedding bread together. The work is often accompanied by music and dance, so it can also be regarded as a kind of bachelorette party. Guests recieve the beautiful loaves distributed at the home of a wedding, and usually keep them as souvenirs, put on the wall or in display cases. I visited an old Sardinian woman whose wall was covered with such breads, and she was able to tell her life story by reviving the memories related to them.

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Bread in the shape of a child is often given as a christening gift.

Eggs are sometimes baked with the Easter bread as a symbol of the desired fertility and wealth.

On the Day of the Dead and on other occasions of visiting the cemetery, the deceased also receive festive bread as a symbol of family togetherness. The nutritional value of this bread is of course unimportant, but its decorative value is all the more significant, since it remains on the grave for a long time, exposed to the critical gaze of other cemetery visitors.

Is this the bread of someone who died of covid? No, it’s a wedding loaf

One of the most important occasions for festive bread is St. Mark’s Day, April 25, when the flocks are driven out to the mountain pastures. On this day, the shepherds, their family members, and the owners of the flocks meet for a farewell mass at the solitary shepherd churches near the villages. The festive loaves are placed on plates around the altar, and each shepherd takes some of the blessed bread up into the mountains with him.

San Mauro shepherd church near Sorgono

Finally, the decoration of the bread given for the New Year represents the desired wealth and prosperity, symbolized by domestic animals, chickens, sheep, goats. Or, in fact, by bread itself, in the form of the small loaves, ears of corn and seeds placed on the decorated bread, as the main symbol of abundance.

The “beautiful bread” in Sardinia

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