Playing games on Christmas day is almost a necessity. You know, as much as you love your family, you may need to catch a breather from gossip and personal questions every now and then. That’s when Italians take out the tombola box from the cupboard and fun begins.

La Tombola is like the game of Bingo. Bingo is just faster to play since the only winning combination are Cinquina and Tombola ( Bingo). La Tombola adds as winners the first three combination below

  • Ambo: two numbers on the same row
  • Terno: three numbers on the same row
  • Quaterna: four numbers on the same row
  • Cinquina: five numbers on the same row
  • Tombola / Bingo: all numbers on the card

In truth, tombola is not only a way to escape your nozy aunt’s questions about your private life, but a real Italian Christmas habit, with deep roots in the history of the country. If this wasn’t enough to make it an important piece of Christmas tradition, recent studies have discovered playing tombola may be beneficial for your mind, too.

But let’s start from the very beginning to learn where the game of tombola comes from and how it was created.

Tombola is commonly played in Italy at Christmas time
Tombola is commonly played in Italy at Christmas time (Andrea Skerlavaj/Flickr)

The Origin of the Tombola

The game we play at Christmas is strictly related to tombola napoletana, a traditional variety of tombola played in Naples since time immemorable, and the popular game of Lotto. It is believed the game of tombola was created almost four centuries ago, in 1734, after a glorious fight between the king of Naples, Charles III Bourbon and the dominican friar Gregorio Maria Rocco.

You see, in those years the people of Naples had a penchant for gambling, so much so Charles III had been considering the idea of making Lotto legal so that he could cash on the activity, making it lucrative for the state. Brother Gregorio wasn’t impressed by the idea, as he thought of gambling as an activity that took time away from prayer. The king being the king, gambling was legalized, with good peace of brother Gregorio, who had to make do with the consolation it was forbidden at Christmas time.

People of Naples – and of the rest of the kingdom, for all that matters – weren’t too kin on taking a break from Lotto so they quite simply kept on playing in the safety of their own homes, with their families. And that’s how tombola was invented and also why it became a typical fixture of Italy’s Christmas.

At home, Lotto’s ninety numbers were kept into “panarielli” (small wicker baskets); cards with the same 90 numbers written on them randomly were distributed to all players, so that they could keep track of the various extractions.

According to some, the word “tombola” comes from the Italian verb “tombolare,” which means to stir with force and may refer to the act of turning and shaking the “panariello” to mix the numbers inside. Others believe that the term may derive from the word “tumulo” (mound), because the first panarielli were pyramidal in shape.

Tombola was born in Naples, an alternative to public gaming during Christmas
Tombola was born in Naples, an alternative to public gaming during Christmas (Arianna Flacco/Flickr)

Tombola is good for your mind

Tombola is certainly a symbol of popular tradition at Christmas time, a game rooted in the history of Italy. What may come a bit as a surprise is that, according to several studies, playing tombola can be beneficial for people’s mind. A German study conducted by the Max Planck Institute in Berlin has discovered that playing tombola strengthens our neural connections, that is, the links among our brain cells. The University of Southampton in the UK also found out that playing tombola improves our concentration and our cognitive capabilities.

Italian studies have highlighted the same benefits for memory and concentration: this happens, it seems, because our concentration remains highly active throughout the game, which requires high levels of attention to make sure not to loose any of the numbers called. Apparently, even the fact tombola is played with many other people improves our brain activity: socializing is good for your brain, too.

Professor Giuseppe Alfredo Iannoccari, president of Assomensana, an Italian association promoting lifestyles against the mind’s early aging, declared that tombola is particularly helpful for the well being of short term memory: keeping track of all those numbers is pretty healthy, in the end.

Tombola can help maintain our minds healthy
Tombola can help maintain our minds healthy (Vin/Flickr)

Not to be forgotten is the already mentioned importance of the social side of playing tombola. Many studies have demonstrated that socializing helps our cognitive functions and is an excellent way to prevent the ageing of our minds.

Tombola and Number Symbolism

As many other  things coming from Naples, tombola is surrounded with a tad of mystery and scaramanzia. For instance, each number is associated with a specific symbolism. For instance:

  • 1: Italy
  • 90: fear
  • 42: coffee
  • 25: Christmas (of course!)

Tombola: not only an old fashioned, yet always popular, game, but apparently also a way to keep your mind young.

Francesca Bezzone

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