Christmas in an Italian household is guaranteed to be three things: Loud, crowded and bursting with food. We are no different. We have one other tradition that we partake in every year on Christmas. We play Bingo. But this isn’t any old Bingo you’re used to. This is Tombola. Each player gets a set of six cards, each set having the numbers 1-90 on the cards. As the caller shouts out the numbers, each player tries to get 2, 3, 4, and finally 5 numbers in a straight line before then trying to be the first to fill up one of their cards.
We’ve been playing this for years. The cards that we use are from at least the 60’s and within each card are hours of stories and laughs that have been had through the years. My earliest memory of Tombola actually consists of the week between Christmas and New Years. When I was little we would spend the week between Christmas and New Years visiting different family members and friends of the family. My favorite house to visit was that of Filomena and her husband (who name escapes me sadly.) If a house could have looked like it was a time machine back to the 50’s, it would have been Filomena’s house. I used to love going there, everything was so old and pristine, right down to the couches covered in plastic. But it never felt like a museum, and I was always welcomed with a sketchpad and pencils and allowed to take over the living room floor as my own. Every year would play out the same way. We’d have dinner, then while the dishes were being washed the women would talk in the kitchen while the men would play poker in the dining room while drinking coffee (I would usually take my spot on my dad’s lap and play his hands for him until I got bored). After all the dishes were cleaned and the coffee was drank, I would take my usual spot on the floor and my parents, cousins, aunts, uncles and friends would take their seats around the dining room table. And then the ritual would begin. After dinner drinks would be passed around, salted peanuts and random meats and cheeses would make their way onto napkins and the Tombola bag would come out.
The Tombola bag is as important as the cards that go in it. First of all….they all seem to come from a casino. If I recall correctly the original bag was a drawstring bag from Caesar’s casino in Atlantic City that had “Have a Nice Day” complete with smiley face on the back on it. Then there are the chips. As you can see in the picture above, we used clear colored chips to mark which numbers have been called out. Some of those chips have magnetic edges so there was also a magnetic wand that for some reason always seemed to be kept in a Crown Royale bag. I would get so excited when I saw that velvet purple bag make it’s way to the table.
Finally, there are the cards themselves. There always seemed to be 8 sets of six cards and 1 set of only 5 cards. It always seems like one card is missing, no matter who brought the Tombola bag. That set was usually saved for when kids played, as it could be split up since it wasn’t a full set to begin with. All of the cards also have various markings written on them. Like strange runes that can only be deciphered by the originator, you’ll find most cards will have asterisks or check marks and even x’s left over from years of people marking their favorites, or cards they felt like they were the luckiest. My cousin will still snatch up the set of cards he marked as his lucky cards when he was a teen. Woe the person who inadvertently picks them up without thinking.
Once all the cards had been doled out and all the money had been collected (10 cents per card) the game actually started. As a kid…this part was the most fascinating. Whenever Filomena called, I did not hear a single number. Instead there was a silly code for every number. If you didn’t know the code, well….tough luck for you. As she would pull numbers out of the call bag she would shout out these codes. In response her codes were met with shouts and laughter from the other people sitting around the table. Sadly as the years have gone on, many of the codes have been forgotten. There are still a few my parents do out of habit but nowadays we just call the numbers. As a kid this whole tradition was like some secret adult club that I wanted to be a part of. When I finally was allowed to join everyone I quickly abandoned my living room carpet and never looked back.
As with most things, traditions lose a lot a speed as there is no one to appreciate and carry them on. After Filomena passed away, we stopped doing our house visits to friends. I was too young to put my foot down and continue the tradition as it was. And while we do still play Tombola at Christmastime it’s become something of an obligation, something we do simply because we feel we have to, not because we want to. We no longer play for hours around a dining room table, laughing and having a good time, we rush through a few games and quickly call it a night. No one marks cards anymore, or humorously fights over what cards they want. No one has any friendly competition anymore or heckles the caller. Now everyone takes the game so seriously and most of the time people are snipping at each other until the game is over. I felt a desperate sadness tonight as this happened. I looked around at my parents, cousins, aunt and uncles and realized that I missed the way this game used to be. That mysterious game I had desperately wanted to be a part of as a kid.
But not all is completely lost. I smile to myself as I remember those nights at Filomena’s and hopefully, someday, I’ll be able to recreate those feelings with my own family. Plastic covers on the furniture and all.