Three Great Kings in Their Bright Array

Today is the Feast of the Epiphany, the day when Christian tradition says that a group of men from the East came to Bethlehem bearing gifts for a child who’s birth they had read in the stars.  There are many legends and stories that have built up around these men which I recounted in a post back in 2013:  One Fine Day I Met Upon Their Way.

In their quest for the Christ Child the Three Kings approach La Befana who is too busy with her housework to help them and dismisses their search.

One of the stories that I never tire of is the Italian legend of La Befana who’s visit was celebrated last evening in Italy and many Italian communities around the world.  I was rather disturbed when I saw that the Italian Community in Ottawa referred to her as “the Witch of Christmas”.  As I have said countless times in the past La Befana is not a witch but simply an older peasant woman who did indeed meet the Three Kings as they went  upon their way.  As with all legends there are many variations of her story and of the several I’ve told over the past eight years I think the one I recounted on our last Epiphany in Italy is my favourite:  Viva La Befana! La Befana.

La Befana vien di nottela-befana-2017
Con le scarpe tutte rotte
Col vestito alla romana
Viva, Viva La Befana!

La Befana comes by night
With her shoes old and broken
She comes dressed in the Roman way
Long life to the Befana!

And again my wish for all my friends in Italy and any place where La Befana has visited is that she continues to do so.  That for that one night of the year she is allowed into homes and for that brief time the children of the world truly become hers.

On this day in 1616:  English Restoration – The Fifth Monarchists unsuccessfully attempt to seize control of London, England.

As she has done for almost a thousand years if not longer, tonight La Befana will mount her broomstick and fly from house to house in Italy and in Italian households all over the world.  The good will be, justly, rewarded with sweets, fruits and perhaps a small gift; the bad will reap the rewards of their badness – a lump of coal or in some households a turnip.

Given the onslaught of Halloween – a holiday unknown in Italy until a decade ago – and the appearance of Babo Natale (Santa Claus) there is a chance that this lovely and age old tradition will disappear before the forces of marketing.  However this little vignette on YouTube from Walks of Italy gives me some assurance that she will not go the way of the zampognari or shepherds who would come down from the mountains and serenade Romans with the bagpipe carols.  Let’s hope that when Beatrice wakes up tomorrow there will be both “sweet carbone” and an extra treat for being a good girl and sharing her traditions with us.

I’ve written extensively in the past about the stories – there are several versions of her history – and celebration of La Befana.  As I said last year each story enriches both the old lady and the traditions surrounding her.  If you haven’t read them before do take a look; if you have, well a second look does not harm.

January 2008 – An Italian Christmas Tradition – La Befana 
January 2009 – Ephipania II
January 2011 – Viva La Befana! La Befana!
January 2012 –  The Flight of La Befana

Carbonne DolciTo all my loved ones in Italy – don’t forget a glass of warming wine and a biscotti will help the old lady on her way in the cold night.  And my hope is that when you wake in the morning La Befana will have left your stockings full of good things and for that once or twice that you just may have been less than good a lump of carbonne but like Beatrice carbonne dolci to sweeten the experience. 

Viva la Befana! Viva!

December 5 – 1974: Warmest reliably measured temperature in Antarctica of +59 °F (+15 °C) recorded at Vanda Station.

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Viva La Befana Viva

And once again this evening, as she has done for millennia, La Befana flies from house to house in Italy – and I’ve been told in some part of Canada too.  On her first journey she searched for the Christ Child but being told that she could find him in each child she made it her task to reward children for their good deeds with sweets, oranges and small gifts.  But being a wise woman she knew that no child was ever always good so she keeps a supply of coal and turnips (?) for those times when behaviour deserved not reward but a reminder to be better next year.

La Befana has had a place on our Christmas Tree since our first Christmas in Italy back in 2007.
Now she serves as a reminder of the love and friendship of all our dear friends, who we miss so much, in Italy.

I’ve written on several occasions about the many stories of how La Befana became, for one night of the year, the guardian of all the children.  Each variation makes the story of this old woman richer and more endearing and I can only hope more enduring.

January 2008 – An Italian Christmas Tradition – La Befana 
January 2009 – Ephipania II
January 2011 – Viva La Befana! La Befana!
January 2012 –  The Flight of La Befana

To all my friends and loved ones in Italy, I hope with all my heart that La Bifana rewards you for your goodness and is forgiving of those bad times.  Viva La Befana Viva!

05 January – 1925: Nellie Tayloe Ross of Wyoming becomes the first female governor in the United States.

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The Flight of La Befana

Tonight, as she has done for the past thousand years – or perhaps two thousand if legend is to be believed, an old lady will wander through the streets, alleyways and roads of Italy looking for a special child.  Some say she is seeking the Christ Child, others that it is her own lost child she seeks and still others say it is all children because for one night a year they have been left in her care.  Her head swathed in an old scarf to protect her from the cold, dressed in a tattered house dress, wearing a pair of scuffed boots – though sometimes she wears sandals or even goes barefoot – and using a broom as support but more often as transportation she will go from house to house.

At each house where she stops she leaves small presents in the stockings that have been left out by the children of the family.  If she finds that the child has been bad there may be a lump of coal or an onion but more often she rewards children for the times they were good with sweets, oranges, toys and games.  And because she comes down the chimney and is a good housekeeper she sweeps away the soot so no trace of her entry can be found.  Then, if thoughtful children have left one behind, she may partake of a glass of local wine or even a biscotti  to warm her old bones and give her strength to continue her journey on to the next house.  It is also known that if she is spied upon she will take her broom stick to the offenders and never visit them again.

Over the past few years I have written about the various versions of the story of La Befana and it seems each year I find another one including this rather lovely variation on her tale at My Merry Christmas.  It is a tradition I have grown to love and cherish as part of my Christmas  and once again this year she graced the tree and has been keeping an eye on things from the hutch until the 12th day of Christmastide comes to an end and things are put away until next year.

Though her tale is now steeped in Christian mythology it is likely that her origins – as with much in Christianity – are pagan.   She may be related to Strenua the Sabine goddess of strength and endurance whose feast came at the beginning of the New Year and included the exchange of gifts.  This festivity was considered riotous and licentious by early Christians but as Thomas Macaulay remarked  “Christianity conquered paganism, but paganism infected Christianity.”  In some northern Italian cultures she represents the Old Year and a puppet of an old lady is burned on a larger bonfire in a public square (Fellini captured that rite in his Amacord) – a pagan tradition that can be found in many Celtic cultures.

Though she is celebrated throughout Italy – and in many Italian communities worldwide – the town of Urbania in Pesaro is closely associated with La Befana.  From January 2 until the 6th the town celebrates La Festa Nationale della Befana with food, fairs, rides, games, parades and more Befane that you can shake a broom at.

These are a few sketches of the street decorations designed by Loris Grisi for this year’s festa – stockings, sacks of goodies, brooms, the only thing missing is the old lady herself.  But as this little sideshow proves there is no lack of guests-of-honour at this celebration.


Viene, viene la Befana
Vien dai monti a notte fonda
Come è stanca! la circonda
Neve e gelo e tramontana!
Viene, viene la Befana

Here comes, here comes the Befana
She comes from the mountains in the deep of the night
Look how tired she is! All wrapped up
In snow and frost and the north wind!
Here comes, here comes the Befana!

Giovanni  Pascoli

And hopefully on her journey tonight she has brought happiness and good things to all my dear friends in Italy.  Viva la Befana Viva!

05 January – 1759 – George Washington married Martha Dandridge Custis

On the Last Day of Christmas

Just a reminder that a left click will enlarge the photos – particularly the last two panorama shots.

Well theoretically I guess the last day of Christmas is the 6th of January but in my old parish we celebrated octave days – a practice whereby a major feast could have an additional celebration on the following Sunday. So to celebrate the Sunday within the Octave of Epiphany we joined Olivia, Tora and Diana for a walk around a few of the presepe in Centro. Most of them will be dismantled today (Monday) though a few will stay up until February 2 – the Presentation of Christ in the Temple.

I wasn’t able to get a photo of the Presepe on permanent display at Santi Cosimo e Damiano and have taken this from another website. It was taken by James Martin at Europe Travel.

Though our journey started with the Neapolitan Presepe at Santi Cosimo e Damiano at the Fori Romano the purpose was to see presepe with a Roman flavour. However it was a fitting place to start as it combined the two historical links of the presepe in Italy – its introduction as a major fixture in the Feast of Christmas by San Francisco (the church is Franciscan) and the artisans of Napoli who created, and still create, some of the most elaborate Nativity scenes imaginable. Commissioned by King Ferdinand in 1780, it led to an entire industry being built up around it including porcelain manufacturing and the silk factory in San Leucio in the Caserta region near Napoli. It became a favourite pastime of noble women to work on elaborate costumes for the various characters that populated the every growing scene. As beautiful as it is unfortunately it needs a good cleaning and a surer hand at lighting and display.

At one time the presepe at Santa Maria in Aracoeli spilled over into the nave of the church. Though the backdrop has all the marks of the 19th century scenery painter the figures themselves are naturalistic. I particularly like the young man who is staring out at us almost defiantly – a Roman ragazzo with a chip on his shoulder? And for some reason that bull reminds me of Ferdinand the Bull – no fighter he!

Tradition plays a great part in the visit of the Kings – the gospels tell us that simply that they were “wise men from the east” but the number was set at three because of the three gifts they gave. In this presepe they were are identifiably from Africa, Ethiopia and the Caucasus. I particularly love the rather jolly sheep who seem to be enjoying themselves immensely and almost laughing at the spectacle.

At the Church of<a href="; target="blank
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This Bethlehem at Chiesa San Marcello bears a striking resemblance to the country side just outside Rome. I only wish I had been able to get a clear picture of the very 19th century light fixture hanging in the farm house at the right. This was part of a movement, initiated by the Franciscans, to bring the Nativity to a more human and less remote level.

As the Kings present their gifts life goes on along the banks of the Tiber in this year’s presepe at Santa Maria di Via. Though I’m not entirely sure it almost looks like the dome of San Giovanni dei Fiorintini in the background. Despite the momentous events taking place in the next street the fisher woman in the background has fallen asleep against her boat.

Two churches along the Corso have presepe that leave no question as to where their Nativity is taking place. At San Marcello al Corso the ruins of the aqueducts tower in the background and the pines are decidedly Roman. There was a symbolism to setting the birth of Christ amongst the ruins of the old civilization – the old ways had been destroyed but the new faith flourished out of them. Santa Maria in Via is unusual in that the setting of their presepe changes from year to year. Last year Castello Sant’Angelo was silhouetted against a star light sky – this year they have moved to the other side of the Tiber and the shores of the river can be seen in the background. It gives a picture of Roma when there was not embankment and the Tiber was still the life blood of the city with buildings built right to its edge.

On New Year’s Eve it has become the tradition, if you are celebrating at the Spanish Steps, to give your true love a rose which she then throws at the Presepe on the stroke of midnight. I’m not sure what it signifies but I’m sure the rose sellers in the area are happy with this custom.

The presepe on the Spanish Steps was once a more elaborate affair with dozens of figurines portraying life in Rome. However vandalism and financial attrition has wheeled down the number of terra cotta inhabitants of this quartiere of the city. It once reflected early 19th century life, as indicated by the uniforms of the Papal Guards, in the area surrounding Piazza Navona (one of Roma’s famous talking statues, Pasquino, can be seen at the far right). Sadly the friggiteria, which once would have had elaborate examples of their fried foods, looks like it has been stripped of all its wares and no one seems to be drinking at the Locanda either.

At Sant’Eustachio the Nativity is a small – almost insignificant – part of what is going on in the daily life of the parish including a fat priest bustling out of the church and some of the fluffiest sheep I’ve ever seen. Though many local landmarks are visible the famous coffee shop is nowhere to be found.

The day before we had been down in the area of Piazza Navona for a visit to the newly restored Museo di Roma. That had been followed by a stroll over to try and get one of the legendary coffees at Cafee Sant’Eustachio however 40 or 50 other people had the same idea so we gave it a pass. However the presepe at Chiesa Sant’Eustachio was a perfect example of the Nativity within the context of familiar surroundings. The scene is a replica of the Piazza in front of the church including a view of the distinctive bell tower of Sant’Ivo.

Today we followed the local custom and took down our presepe and stored it away just as most of the parishes throughout town have done with theirs. Unlike the churches here when ours is next set up it will be in a different place but like theirs it will be the familiar retelling of the Christmas story.

10 gennaio – Sant’Odilone