Dominic the Donkey is bound to bring a childish grin to your face.
When Santa visits his paisans,
With Dominic he’ll be.
Because the reindeer cannot
Climb the hills of Italy.
If you’re an American of Italian descent, there’s a good chance you’re familiar with this mid-20th century masterpiece of Christmas kitsch. Recorded by Lou Monte in the late 1950s, “Dominic the Donkey” tells the tale of a little donkey with a heart of gold who helps Santa traverse the many hills of Italy, where the reindeer cannot tread.
The song was not very popular when it came out, as the Italian lyrics and references kept it from appealing to a national audience. But in the ’90s and early ’00s the novelty tune had a resurgence, and after appearing on a Christmas compilation in 2011 it blew up in popularity.
While the tune popularized the Italian Christmas Donkey in America, Italy has had a long-standing tradition of a donkey helping deliver presents at Christmas time, which comes from the story of St. Lucia.
St. Lucia was a young Sicilian girl in the 3rd century who, as legend tells, would wear a wreath of candles as she brought food to Christians hiding in underground tunnels. Popular legend states Lucia was once courted by a suitor who became enamored of her eyes, so she plucked them out and sent them to him on a platter; however other accounts claim her eyes were gouged out prior to her execution. She was denounced as a Christian and ordered by Roman authorities to work in a brothel, but she chose martyrdom instead.
In Italy, St. Lucia’s feast day, December 13, is a momentous day for children, akin to Santa visiting on Christmas Eve. Tradition says that children need to write her a letter and await her arrival with her helper Castaldo and a donkey who will bring presents to good children and coal to those who were naughty. Sound familiar?
On the night of the 12th, children leave a glass of milk for St. Lucia, a glass of wine for Castaldo, and some hay for the helpful donkey. Children are advised not to try to catch St. Lucia in the act, for she might throw ashes in your eyes to temporarily blind you.
The tradition began in the 12th century, but it has endured until today and is especially celebrated in northeastern Italy.