In Europe, the winter solstice has traditionally been accompanied by the burning of ritual fires intended to assist the strength and vigour of the sun. On Christmas Eve, in the Garfagnana, the valley of the river Serchio in northern Tuscany, the landscape is dotted by huge bonfires known as natalecci. Sometimes the communities light a single fire, as on the doorstep of the village church at Camporgiano, and in others the inhabitants compete to see who can produce the most spectacular nataleccio, as in Gorfigliano. Similar bonfires are constructed in other forested areas of Tuscany, including during the famous Fiaccole di Natale at Abbadia San Salvatore.
The nataleccio is constructed in cylindrical form by driving a chestnut trunk into the ground and weaving a large number of juniper branches around it, with the help of an iron wire structure. The preparation takes days and the nataleccio is usually more than 10 m high and three or four m in diameter. The aim is to render the structure stable so that it doesn't prematurely fall, and to weave the juniper branches to ensure a long lasting flame. The fire should last - high, bright and without smoke - for more than twenty minutes. These are the criteria on which the winner is judged.
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