On the road: Festivities go off with a bang in the shadow of Vesuvius

It's Christmas Eve in Napoli and the rush is on to get ready for the main family feast. In the shadow of brooding Vesuvius, the sacred and profane overflow in a city both blessed and cursed by nature. Fatalism and ancient superstitions run alongside Christian mores. Via San Gregorio Armeno, home of the presepe (nativity-scene) craftsmen, twinkles with rustic tableaux teeming with wise men, shepherds, hams...

This year Berlusconi's ceramic smile rings false behind the figurine of Julian Assange, who takes his place next to Mary. I barter for a fistful of twisted red corni: good-luck charms to ward off the evil eye.

Twenty-odd family members span an extended line of tables that leaves us all on different levels. After an antipasto of "reinforced" salad – a heap of pickled peppers, cauliflower, anchovies, capers and Gaeta olives – it's time for fresh spaghetti con vongole (clams). Then frittura of salt cod, eel, prawns, squid... Someone grabs the huge bulbous lemon that resembles my uncle's gnarled nose and slices it, squeezing its juices over the crisp batter. Trays of sticky honeyed pastries appear, causing belt buckles to loosen. No one sits at peace: up and down, in and out to the roof terrace where the balmy night crackles with fireworks. The first Bomba di Maradona – this year's earth-shaker of choice – presages New Year's Eve explosions.

After chants and screams of "regali, regali", the presents are handed out but it's too late: the children, now exhausted, melt into tears. Then, with Mass passed over until tomorrow, it's a bingo-style game of tombola – based on the cultish La Smorfia, from Morfeo, the Greek diviner of dreams. The numbers 1 to 90 are illustrated by dark and humorous images, tied to fate and the lottery. Seasonal fruit and nuts – persimmons, oranges, honeydew melon, dried figs, walnuts, pistachios – pass rhythmically from hand to mouth as the soothsayer shakes her basket, plucks a counter and calls.

Year after year we await the same lucky numbers as familial ribbing fills these walls. For every pious image – 13: Sant'Antonio – there are many more saucy and bizarre (67: squid in the guitar?). When 71: l'ommo 'e merda (shitty man) is called, my father wakens momentarily to share in the laughter before going back to his post-feast nap.

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