06 January 2009

Festa dell'Epifania, January 6

Orthodox Christmas, Twelfth Night, Three Kings Day, the Feast of the Epiphany. Here in Venice it’s called La Festa dell’Epifania and it’s a day dear to children because they wake up and find what La Befana left in their stockings the previous night, as well as clean-swept floors throughout the house.

Who’s “La Befana?” you ask. Well, she’s often depicted as a happy witch on a broom, but really she is a tender-hearted crone (and reputedly an exceptional housekeeper). She’s got a soft spot for kiddies, whose stockings she stuffs with candy and toys, although she’s not above leaving a lump of coal for ill-behaved children. While families sleep, she enters their houses by way of the chimney, so her ragged dress is always covered in soot. Sound familiar? Yes, she’s a kind of female combination St. Nicholas-Belsnickel character.

Her name may be a mispronunciation of the Greek word “epifania.” More likely though, she has her roots in the pagan goddess and giver of gifts at the new year, Strina or Strenia (which happens to sound a lot like strega, the Italian word for witch). In some parts of Italy the word for a Christmas or New Year gift is still strenna.

La Befana also appears to incorporate another pre-Christian European tradition, that of Nicevenn, the wooden puppet of an old woman representing the passing old year, which is burned to make way for the new year.

I have heard two Christian legends explaining La Befana.

In one story, the three wise men (sometimes called “astronomers”) came to the crone’s door, asking directions to Bethlehem and assistance in finding the newborn Christ Child. But she was too busy with her housework and she sent them on their way. Later she had a change of heart, and followed after them, seeking the Holy Family. Still she searches at every home, leaving presents for all the children, in case one of them might be the Baby Jesus.

In another, darker story, the crone had a baby whom she loved deeply but the baby died. Her grief drove her to madness. She followed the three wise men to Bethlehem, with the delusional thought that the Christ Child was her lost baby. She brought gifts to Him, and He saw her great love and took pity on her. His gift, in return, was to make her the honorary mother of all children.

See that big stuffed stocking hanging from Rialto Bridge? That marks the end of the regatta of the befane – actually Venetian men dressed up as crones, rowing their sandoli with little pink-ribboned brooms poking up at the sterns. At the finish line, on the Riva del Vin side of Rialto, there are little cups of cioccolata calda and the first powdered sugar galani of the season (see blogpost 25 January 2008 to learn about this treat) for everybody and the corniest music you ever heard. Delightful!

If you’re ever in Venice for the Epifania regatta, finish up your sweet snack and hurry over to the Piazza to witness a rare spectacle at the Orologio. At noon you will see the little doors on either side of the Madonna and Child open, and out will come a brief, beautiful parade: an angel in gold blowing a trumpet, followed by three bowing kings bearing their gifts. See them here now, or wait for another year to pass…