CHIAVARI, Italy - The Feast of the Epiphany, which we will celebrate on Tuesday, January 6th, is a national holiday here 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.
Part of the celebration 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 their bedposts or fireplaces. There are toys and sweets for those who have been good and a lump of coal for those who have not. Sound familiar? So what happens if you don’t have a chimney? Well, sometimes she files in on a broom or she might come riding up on a donkey or if none of those work she may just slip in through a keyhole. She is a witch, after all.
According to Italian 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 baby Jesus. Disheartened by this lost opportunity she stopped every child she saw along the way and with the hope that one of them was the Christ child, she gave each of them a gift. To this day La Befana continues to look for the Christ Child and on this night she goes from house to house in search of Him.
One of the biggest Befana celebrations in Italy takes place in the town of Urbania, in Le Marche region. And 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.
In Rome’s Piazza Navona they celebrate the "feast of the Befana" 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. If the kids can stay awake until midnight, they can 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 sometimes she “flys in” at the stroke of midnight on January 6th with a sack of goodies to give away.
Rome also celebrates the Epiphany with a procession in medieval costumes. There are symbolic gifts for the Pope and a parade up the wide avenue that leads to the Vatican. Then the Pope says morning mass in St Peter's Basilica to commemorate the visit of the Wise Men bearing gifts for Jesus. This tradition is (very) loosely based on the ancient pagan holiday of Saturnalia. Now that was a party.
Saturnalia was a week-long blow out celebrated between December 17 -25 in ancient Rome. During this week long period the Roman courts were closed and no one could be punished for damaging property or hurting other people. In other words, it was a lawless free-for-all. The party would start when the Roman authorities chose “an enemy of the Roman people”. During the entire week of Saturnalia, the “enemy” was forced to eat and drink and indulge in sexual pleasures, but at the end of the week the Romans sacrificed the “enemy” to the Gods. To celebrate the ceremony of the human sacrifice, cookies in the form of humans were made and eaten. Are we talking about the great, great, great granddaddies of gingerbread men here? Why I do believe we are.
In addition to the human sacrifice, naked people would go from house to house and sing to the occupants (Christmas caroling?), there was widespread drunkenness and everyone closed their eyes to rape and other sexual assaults.
At the end of all this partying, Romans would go to the Temple of Juno on Capitoline Hill to have their fortunes (augers) told by a wise, old crone who lived in a cave the rest of the year. Everyone wanted to know what was in store for them in the New Year. But then, when Christianity became the main religion, they put a stop to all that partying. But the people were not happy with the changes, so the Christians created La Befana and had her bring gifts to placate the partygoers as a 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 we say now, tanti aguri (best wishes). And that is what I wish for all of you – Tanti, tanti auguri per un felice e prospero 2014.