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Friday, January 5, 2018

Long life to the Befana!

Today, January 6th is La Festa della Befana.
All children in Italy will be singing  the nursery rhymes about Befana –

La Befana vien di notte

Con le scarpe tutte rotte

Col vestito alla romana
Viva, Viva La Befana!

The English translation is:
The Befana comes by night

With her shoes all tattered and torn

She comes dressed in the Roman way
Long life to the Befana!

It is basically the date on which the 3 wise men finally arrived at the stable in Bethlehem to offer Jesus gifts of gold, incense and myrrh. In Italy, according to Christian tradition, we celebrate an holiday called Epiphany, Epifania in Italian.

It is an extremely important part of the Christmas festivities, and Epiphany, Epifania o Festa della Befana,  is a public Holiday so government offices, post offices, banks, schools and other educational institutions are closed.
Epiphany is just as important as Christmas itself and is a big day for celebrating and exchanging presents. But to bring the presents it is not Santa Claus (Babbo Natale), but a witch called Befana, or in Venice  “Marantega”, who flies on a broomstick. She is also often covered in soot, as just like Santa Claus, she delivers presents through the chimney. It is also believed that she also sweeps the floor before she leaves as a way of sweeping away last year’s problems.
So just who is the Befana?

Legend has it that the three kings stopped to ask the Befana for directions to Bethlehem, but she didn’t know it. But she offered to put them up for the night.  The next day the wise men invited the Befana to travel with them, but she said she had too much housework to do, and did not go with them.

But the Befana could not stop thinking about the invitation and eventually decided to follow the kings to find Jesus. She carried a sack filled with bread. Whenever she saw a child, she was giving him a piece of bread hoping he might be the Christ child.
Sadly, though, Befana never managed to catch up with the wise men and never found the stable in Bethlehem. So she is still wandering through Italy on her broomstick looking for the baby and leaving goodies for children.

There is also a second legend that states that the Befana could originate from the Sabine or Roman goddess named Strina, as Romans used to give presents of sweets to celebrate the new year. Her name means “gift-bringer”.
Just like at Christmas, children leave stockings out on the evening of 5th January hoping that the Befana will leave presents and sweets. They also often leave the witch a snack of something soft to eat, as she has hardly any teeth!
But if children haven’t been good they risk just being left a lump of coal or a stick. Nowadays days the coal is a rock candy called “carbone” made from caramel, which I always found very delicious.

Parents still use the threat of the Befana to ensure good behavior for the kids. The saying “Lo dico alla Befana!” (I’ll tell to the Befana), or the terrifying “Viene la Befana e ti porta via!” (the Befana will come and take you away)!!  Its enough to scare even the naughtiest child as the Befana is well-known to have a terrible husband who likes to devour children!! Always got me as a child…

Apart from presents, festivities take various forms around Italy. In my region, the Veneto, we lit wood bonfires or roghi or foghere,  on the night of the 5th January to tell the future from the direction of the smoke.

The highlight in Venice, however, is definitely the Regata delle Befane, the regatta of the witches, that takes place at 11am on the Grand Canal. It’s a very fun regatta. Retired gondoliers and Bucintoro rowing club members dressed as old Befana’s  or vecie maranteghe in the Venetian dialect and race between San Tomá and the Rialto Bridge where a large stocking is hung from the parapet.

A band plays at the feet of Rialto bridge throughout the morning. 

Hot chocolate, vin brulé (warm sweet wine,  and sweet biscuits are handed out to the crowds of spectators by the Pink Lionesses rowing club as they wait for the Befane to arrive.

Around town, patisseries also sell fried doughnuts with dried fruit in and mammaluchi /fritters with raisins as a traditional treat for locals to eat along with their hot chocolate.

And as with all  the Venetian regattas, the winners are awarded silk pennants.

Stockings filled with sweets are also handed out for free to children at the Fish Market near the Rialto Bridge. Kids can have their photos taken with the Befana and everyone can have a hot chocolate, hot wine, chunk of pandoro cake or handful of peanuts for a donation to the Rialto Association.

Its also worth taking a walk over to St Mark’s square on this day, where there is a special procession of an angel and the wise men above the clock on the Torre dell’Orologio in tribute to the Madonna and child. The wise men process every hour, on the hour but can only be seen on Epiphany and in May for the Ascension so don’t miss them if you are in my hometown.

(The statues are often on display inside for visitors to the clock tower but only process twice a year).

Other cities have different traditions. If you are in Florence they have a large parades headed by the 3 wise men on horseback - La Cavalcata dei Magi. 

Rome has a large market in Piazza Navona where toys, sugar charcoal and other candies are on sale.

And in Urbania, believed  to be Befana’s official hometown, some 30,000-50,000 people attend the festivities to watch as hundreds of Befanas fly down from the main tower.
So Happy Befana.
And he is to a New Year great year. 

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