Wednesday, January 5, 2011

La Befana!

"b?" "p?" "v?" Makes no difference to an Italian. 

La Epifania is the name of the holiday... An Italian saying it in dialect? La Befana isn't a stretch...

Do a quick web search and you'll find the wiki entry for the "modern" version of the La Befana story. The christianized version is basically: The 3 Magi are wandering, following the infamous star. They somehow find themselves in Italy and knock on a old woman's door. They tell her they're off see baby Jesus and are bringing gifts, does she want to go with them. She says no, but when she changes her mind it's too late, they've already gone ahead. To make up for it, she goes around giving gifts to all children she comes across in case that's the one they were looking for.

But where did this come from? You don't have to search much to find out:

Ovid, in his work, The fasti, has a Q & A session with Janus. When asked why given gifts of fruit, dates, pure honey and a coin to start off the new year, Janus replies that it's to start the year off both sweet, and prosperous. The gifts were called Strenae- the New Year's Gifts, Janus rules that which is new- that first moment, the threshold and crossing through it.

In Vestiges of ancient manners and customs discoverable in modern Italy and Sicily (which was written in the 1820's) talks about a celebration he witnessed in Florence which included: People running around that eve dressed in "burlesque costumes" with torches in hand, singing, shouting and blowing glass horns. The author even notes a book I can't find about Dea Strenia.

My family has always celebrated New Year's Eve by dressing up (not just fancy dress, but after midnight, the women would dress up in the men's clothing, pretend to smoke cigars, paint on mustaches, etc), blow horns, ring bells, shout and party and have sweet foods (desert) as the first food of the new year. This often included a fruit bowl and struffles, aka honey balls. The celebration might have been a bit toned down this year (I didn't dress up in hubby's clothes), but things haven't changed all that much!

La Befana vien di notte
con le scarpe tutte rotte
con le toppe alla sottana:
Viva, viva la Befana!

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