The day of the Epiphany in north of Italy is better known as the day of “la Befana”.
On the night between the fifth and the sixth of January the good witch comes down from the chimney and leaves goodies for the well behaving kids and coal for the bad ones.Kids leave their stockings to be filled before going to bed along with a glass of wine and a slice of “pinza”(typical cake of the day that is a mix between a polenta cake and a fruit cake).The befana comes over night,enjoys her snack and leaves her gifts.A rural festival called “Pane Vin”is held on the evening of the fifth.Every town and every village builds a big bonfire with,at the top, a dummy symbolising the good old witch that it will be burned down and with her the perpetual survival of the evil spirits. As soon it is dark the local men starts the fire shooting at it.If you are lucky enough to live in a place on the water the bonfire will be on the river bank and that,it makes the whole show even more spectacular and fascinating.In Venice the Pane Vin is done on a raft in the laguna and the bonfire is lit by divers.Once the bonfire exhausts itself slices of pinza and mulled wine are served to the crowd still mesmerized.
I have always been fascinated by this tradiotion.As a child it was a unique experience :the fire,the shooting,the dark,the cheering crowd and, at the end, the festive atmosphere everybody was dragged into it.The excitement and curiosity in the morning to see what I was left was overwhelming and still well printed in my memory.It was another christmas morning except, this morning ,would end the Christmas time.
The whole ritual traditionally aims to bring prosperity for the agriculture.I,personally, always thought it brings much more.It brings sense of community and solidarity.It brings serenity to cope with what it has to come in the new year.The bonfire involves the whole community and the whole community is there to assist.For one night there are no worries,no antagonisms,no social differences.Everybody is side by side celebrating together, toasting their glasses rocked by the music of the local bands.Nobody is discouraged by the cold weather of a night of early January because all around is warm.A warmth brought by happy carefree souls.
When I moved to Ireland I was so disappointed on the fact the the Epiphany was just regarded as “little Christmas”.It is not.It is not only the arrival of the three kings:It is,also the arrival of the three kings.It is a multitude of different myths and meanings.I am not particularly patriotic but I am particularly proud of descending from the roman and the latin culture.Far back there it goes the celebration of this night and day.Numa Pompilio,(the second of the seven king of Rome),used to leave a stocking in a cave during the time of the winter solstice to be filled of gifts from a Nymph.
Last night I magically transformed myself from mama Fairy to mama Nymph and filled my girls stockings, diligently left hanging on the mantelpiece.I enjoyed my glass of wine and my slice of banana bread (no “pinza” but the easiest option).I went to bed and woke up this morning to find two little girls very anxious to see what the befana brought them.Two little girls very anxious to see in their stocking the proof of their being good or bad over the past year.
I love this night of transition from a time to another. The night of the fifth of January,as I see it,it is a night to celebrate whatever your beliefs are.
It can be the arrival of the three kings or it can be the appearing of the good witch who brings gifts.It can be the twelfth night after Christmas or it can be the twelfth night of Shakespeare when all the spirits come out to make jokes against the mortals.It can be the end of the twelve days that see Diana,(goddess of the Hunt,the Moon and the Nature),leading her army of Amazons over the fields to bless the harvest to come. It can be the night when Perchta,the queen of all the feral beast, shows herself to the german populations or it can be the night of Holda,showing herself to the scandinavian tribes.Whatever you believe in,the “befana”will appear in any of her form to fill your stocking and your soul.She will appear to bless the coming year with fertility,peace and harmony.
Happy Befana day everybody.