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  • 'Tis the Season for Tombola

    Part 1 of 2: Italians gamble away the holiday season - and it's a great thing
    Our Paesani

    By Francesca Di Meglio

    Tombola Meanings
    Italy is all fun and games during the holiday season. The country's decorations are far more subdued and serious than those you might see in the United States. It's all nativity scenes and gold stars with few trees and lights. But in homes across the country, the people come together to laugh, eat, drink - and gamble. It's not what you think. Sometimes they're playing for beans or one or two euro (which are coins in Italy). They are playing Tombola or the Italian version of bingo.

    Tombola, at least the Neapolitan version, is far more colorful than plain old bingo. Each number represents some sort of symbol. Number one for instance is Italia. Number 13 is Saint Anthony (since the saint's feast day is June 13). There are also racier symbols including private parts of the female and male anatomy.

    Most of the boards and cards are colorful and pretty. They include the word of the symbol in universal Italian and Neapolitan dialect. You can usually find the entire board printed on T-shirts and calendars. My mom even has an apron! People are unfazed by those few naughty symbols standing next to the religious ones. It's a perfect representation of the naughty and nice Neapolitans who created the game.

    The numbers are rolled by an objective person, called, and placed on a board in front of the players. They then place a bean or marker on their smaller cards if they have that number. Like bingo, the goal is to cover an entire row before anyone else does.

    Many people play for change and sometimes it gets heated. People really want to win. Even Italians in the United States lose their cool over Tombola. Once, my cousin's father-in-law Damiano, who was near 90 at the time, demanded silence to hear the numbers and then heard the numbers as he wanted to hear them. “You said sedici (16) right? It was sedici? It's sedici.” It was really three. Somehow, he won the jackpot right away.

    Italians play Tombola from Christmas Eve (while waiting for Midnight Mass) to the Epiphany (while waiting for La Befana). It's also a popular choice for the older generation that tends to stay in to celebrate New Year's Eve.

    This is a simple game that unites generations and is a main stay over the holidays in Italy. In fact, many Italian television shows feature their own versions during the season. (Watch RAI International and you'll probably see.)

    What is beautiful about Tombola is its simplicity. It's the kind of game that you'd think would get old. Yet, year after year, my Italian friends and family gather round and roll the number markers. Sometimes, they play for hours. They usually have snacks and talk and talk. It's like Americans getting together for some turkey. It is the perfect excuse to catch up and leave the rest of life behind for a few hours. The funny pictures and words are just a bonus Christmas gift.

    If you'd like to pick up a Tombola Napoletana board in the United States, you can try your nearest Italian specialty shop. I found one in New York's Little Italy a few years ago. You can also pick one up on your next trip to the homeland.

    Part 2: Tombola Meanings

    Di Meglio has written the Our Paesani column for since 2003. You can follow the Italian Mamma on Facebook or Twitter @ItalianMamma10.


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