08 January 2012

LIFE: La Befana

SARONNO, Italy - The Feast of the Epiphany, which we celebrated on January 6th, is  a national holiday in Italy. Technically it is an ancient religious festival celebrating the magi’s visit to the Christ Child. It is sometimes called “Three Kings Day” or “Twelfth Day” because it is celebrated twelve days after Christmas. 
 A Roman Befana
Part of the celebration in Italy is the arrival of La Befana, the good witch.  She comes down the chimney in the middle of the night and fills the stockings that the kids have hung on the fireplace. There are toys and sweets for those who have been good, and a lump of coal for those who have not. Sound familiar?

I remember my father talking about how excited he used to be about the arrival of the La Befana, and the joy of finding a couple of oranges in his stocking in the morning. Granted that was a long time ago in a small village in the hills outside of Rome where oranges were an absolute luxury at the time, but if you could see the faces of the kids here in Saronno this past week, I think you would agree that that sense of excitement still exists. There is something magical about someone flying in on a broomstick (or sled) and leaving gifts.
A Stocking full of Candy
According to the legend, the night before the Wise Men arrived at the manger with gifts for the Baby Jesus, they stopped at the hovel of an old woman to ask directions. Seeing her alone, they invited her to come along with them but she replied that she was too busy. Then a shepherd, who was also on his way to visit the Baby Jesus, asked her to join him too, but again she refused.

Later that night, when a great light appeared in the sky,  the old woman changed her mind and decided to join the Wise Men and the shepherd and bring the Baby Jesus gifts that had belonged to her now dead child. She gathered the gifts and some food and like the Magi followed the star toward Bethlehem. Unfortunately she was not able to find the Magi, the shepherds or the new-born Jesus. Disheartened by this lost opportunity she stopped every child she saw along the way and gave each one a treat, hoping that one of them would be the Christ child. 
A Whole Parade of Befane
To this day La Befana continues her search for the Christ Child, using her broom, to fly from house to house. There’s even a little song about La Befana, that parents sing to their kids It goes something like this:

La Befana vien di notte
Con le scarpe tutte rotte
Col vestito alla romana
Viva, Viva La Befana!

The Befana comes at night,
with her broken shoes
and raggedy clothes,
long live the Befana!

It's a lousy translation but you get the idea. I was thinking about inserting a video with the music for this ditty but I couldn’t get past the singing “chipmunk” voices, so I’ll leave that up to you. Then I found two videos showing the arrival of La Befana in Rapallo, a town on the Italian Riviera. In the first video she arrives by boat, this is the Riviera after all, and in the second video she’s in one of the piazzas giving away gifts. There is one scene in the second video of a little boy who does not want the small gift she is holding out to him, and points to the one he does want, a big box of something. 


It made me think of my father and how grateful he was to find a couple of oranges in his stocking. I guess that’s what prosperity creates, a sense of entitlement.

Popular tradition dictates that if you see La Befana, or worse yet, if she see you, she will give you a whack with her broomstick. This sounds like a page right out of my parenting playbook as a ploy to keep the kids in bed on the eve of the Epiphany, instead of up hiding behind the furniture trying to get a glimpse of the witch.

One of the biggest celebrations for La Befana is in the town of Urbania, in Le Marche region, where there is a 4-day festival during the weekend of the Epiphany.  Just like Santa Claus has his house up at the North Pole, La Befana has her house in Urbania, and each year between 30,000-50,000 people come to visit her there.
Befana Dolls in Piazza Navona, Rome
In Rome there is the "feast of the Befana" in Piazza Navona and the piazza is ringed with stalls selling candy, including lumps of black, sugar charcoal and toys, and pre-stuffed stockings for the little ones. You can also take part in an ancient Roman tradition of waiting for La Befana to appear in the window of one of the buildings in the piazza, or “fly in” at the stroke of midnight on January 6th with a sack of goodies for the children. 

Rome also celebrates with a procession in medieval costumes. They carry  symbolic gifts for the Pope and parade up the wide avenue that leads to the Vatican. Then the Pope says a morning mass in St Peter's Basilica to commemorate the visit of the Wise Men bearing gifts for Jesus. 
 La Befana Flying into Town
The origins of La Befana dates back farther than the Roman's pagan festival of Saturnalia, which was a one or two week festival starting just before the winter solstice. At the end of Saturnalia, Romans would go to the Temple of Juno on the Capitoline Hill to have their fortunes told by an wise, old  crone.

Many pagan traditions were incorporated into Christmas celebrations when Christianity became main stream and La Befana was a good substitute for the old woman who read the augers. The Italian word auguri originated from this practice as it was common to wish someone good augers, or as they say now, tanti aguri (best wishes), instead of Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays. And that is what I wish for you – Tanti, tanti auguri per 2012. 

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