6 January 2013


La Befana

Domenico Ghirlandaio

This morning, when I woke, I found a sack of coal outside my door.  A bit much, I thought; have I really been that bad?

It is one of the oldest and most observed traditions of Italy that young children expect presents on the morning of January 6th, The Feast of the Epiphany, which celebrates the arrival of the Magi, representing the world of the Gentiles, to see the Christ Child and present their gifts. 

Sandro Botticelli

"And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh."  (Matthew 2, verse 11). 

The Magi had journeyed for days and nights, following the star in the East, and on the twelfth night after the birth, they came to the house of a woman who had lost her child, and they asked her the way.  She was busy cleaning and declined to follow them.  Then a shepherd, following the wise men, also asked her to go with them.  Again she declined, but not long after she saw a great light in the sky and decided she would go after all and so gathered up all the toys and presents she had had for her own dead child and hurried after the men, carrying her broom.  Sadly she never caught up with them, and wandered unfulfilled, although some versions of the tale have her arriving at the stable to find the manger empty, where she delivers her gifts.

Ghirlandaio (detail)

There is a pre-Christian, Roman feast of Saturnalia in midwinter, associated with the gods Janus and Strenia, and this story may well have its origins within that world.  But then it has been transmuted further by turning the woman into a witch, riding her broomstick, called in Italy La Befana (clearly derived from Epiphany), who brings good children gifts on Twelfth Night, but delivers coal (or onions or garlic in some areas) to children who have been bad.....   

Many are the poems and songs which keep this tradition alive, from the Romanesque sonnets of Gioachino Belli in the mid 19th century, through the fourth movement of Feste Romane by Respighi, to a song popularised by Gianni Morandi in 1978  - 

"The Song of the Befana"

La Befana vien di notte

con le scarpe tutte rotte,

con la calza appesa al collo

col carbone, col ferro e l’ottone.

In modern times she is still very active, and Italian children expect their gifts on January 6th rather than Christmas Day, and lie awake on Twelfth Night fearful that they may hear the witch bumping her broomstick.  In Piazza Navona, in Rome, it is said she looks out of a window onto the busy Christmas market (which specialises in selling sugar sweets, especially those that appear to be lumps of coal) and the small town of Urbania, in Le Marche, holds one of the biggest celebrations of La Befana in a four day festival leading up to the Epiphany.  In Venice, on January 6th, they hold the Befane races, Regatta delle Befane, when gondoliers dressed as La Befana race on the Grand Canal.  In the Vatican City, following another tradition, a procession of hundreds of people in medieval costumes parade up the avenue leading to the Vatican, carrying symbolic gifts for the Pope who then says a morning mass in St Peter's to commemorate the visit of the Magi.

As an aside, in historical tradition the Magi were priests of the sacred fire. They were a privileged caste who, in Zoroastrian Persia,  symbolized the three worlds: earthy gold, celestial incense, and myrrh from beyond the grave.

In literature the use of the word "epiphany" (with a small "e") is used to denote a moment of revelation, or the sudden understanding or realisation of the nature or meaning of something.  This may occur following some experience which triggers a new way of seeing something.  James Joyce developed this idea in "Stephen Hero" and then "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,"  when he sees a girl wading with her skirts hitched up, which reminds him of a bird, which reminds him of flight, and Icarus, and so reveals that his name (Daedalus) is associated with art and that that is where his life should lead......  But that is another story.

However, that may help explain why I found a bag of coal on my doorstep this morning.

Canzone della Befana - Gianni Morandi 1978 | Poesie della Befana http://www.poesie.reportonline.it/Poesie-della-Befana/canzone-della-befana.html#ixzz2HBghgHkk

No comments:

Post a Comment