The Epiphany. . . La Befana

January 6 is a National holiday in Italy. It is the Epifania (Epiphany), a Christian holiday celebrated precisely on January 6, 12 days after Christmas.

The word Epifania derives from the Greek word epifanèia, which means “the manifestation or the appearance”.

The Epiphany celebrates the first manifestation of Jesus to the world through the visit of the Re Magi (three wise men) coming from the East, led by a comet to adore the Baby Jesus and to offer their gifts of gold (symbol of royalty), frankincense (symbol of divinity) and myrrh (symbol of the future redemptive suffering).

The celebration of the Epiphany is also accompanied by traditions of very ancient lineage (solar cults) and in particular the visit of la Befana on the eve of January 6. The tradition of La Befana may actually predates Christianity, as it is believed to have derived from a pagan goddess or oracle that Romans sought for guidance and gifts at the start of each new year.

“la Befana vien di notte con le scarpe tutte rotte il cappello alla romana, viva viva la Befana!!!”

(The Befana comes at night with broken shoes and a roman hat, hurrah hurrah for the Befana!!!)

With this rhyme the Italian children every year celebrate the arrival of the old, good witch.

La Befana is a typical Italian tradition.

According to the modern legend, the Re Magi (The three Wise men), on their way to Bethlehem to bring gifts to Baby Jesus, stopped for directions at an old woman’s house.

Picture from "The Christmas Witch" by J. Oppenheim and A. Mitra

Despite their insistence in following them, the old woman did not go, as she was busy sweeping the floors.

Later, the old woman repented, prepared a basket of sweets and left the house hoping to find the three Wise Men. She stopped at every house and gave candies to the children, in the hope that one of them was Baby Jesus. Poor Befana never found her way to Bethlehem. But, every year at Christmastime, she takes her broom and flies all over the Italian sky, leaving gifts and candies to every children.

La Befana is typically depicted as an old beneficent woman, with the hump nose and pointed chin, dressed in rags and covered with soot, because she enters into the houses through the chimney, which represents the connection between sky and earth. She carries on her shoulder a bag full of gifts, and is said to sweep the kitchen with her broom when she leaves her gifts in the children‘s socks.

The festivity of the Befana is particularly felt in Rome, where many families each year gather in Piazza Navona to meet the Befana and enjoy her confectionary.

The Befana traditionally rewards the well-behaved children with gifts and candies, while she punishes the ones who have misbehaved, with pieces of coal as a reminder of their misdeeds.

But. . . nobody is perfect, so you will find in the “calza” (sock – stocking) a nice chunk of coal and then, digging deeper, among some walnut and mandarins you will always find candies and chocolates.

The eve of the Befana is a night of expectation for all the children who, before going to sleep, write the letterina (short letter). The letterina to the Befana is a must. You write how good you have been or how sorry you are for your misbehaving and then you ask for gifts for yourself and for your loved ones.

One more thing before going to sleep must be done, setting up a tray with the Befana’s meal. I know. . . you are thinking cookies and milk just like Santa Claus! Well, you could not be more wrong. . . cheese, tangerines and a glass of red wine! In true Italian style!

I have many memories of the night of the Befana but, two in particular that I would like to share. When I was a child, my family didn’t have a fireplace to hang the stockings so my mom would set up a drying rack. One year I remember hanging long wool tights on each string of the rack. That was a lot of stuffing to do for poor Befana! I remember waking up the following morning and finding the drying rack set on top of the dining room table, all the tights were filled and a beautiful electric train was assembled at the foot of the drying rack all along the edge of the table. Oh, I was so happy!

My second memory brings a little sadness. I was six years old when my grandmother passed away just two days before the Epiphany. I was sent to stay with some close friends. That year, in a home that was not mine, I had not written my letterina (short letter), or left a meal for the Befana and not even hung my calza (stocking). Despite all, I woke up to find my calza (stocking) filled as usual, and the gift I had wished for. My Befana knew, and even in a time of grief she remembered that I was only a little kid.

My mother has filled my brothers’ stockings and mine until we moved out. Often with the candies, walnuts and tangerines, we would also find a scarf or hat that she had hand knitted.

Today, I still fill my two, now adult, son’s stockings and I will keep doing it until they go on their own. I fill their calze (stockings) with Italian candies and chocolates, tangerines, walnuts and a stuffed animal, a tradition I started on their first Befana.

Picture from "The Christmas Witch" by J. Oppenheim and A. Mitra

With la Befana the Italian Christmas Season is officially over, as the saying goes “L’Epifania tutte le feste si porta via!” – “The Epiphany all holidays takes away”.

It is time to take the Christmas tree down, to store the presepe (Nativity scene) in its box, the wreaths and garlands in the storage room and to turn all the shining lights off.

Anyway, if there was not the Epiphany to take all the holidays away, we would still have the Home Owner Association to remind us that we only have this weekend to make sure that no signs of Christmas would be in sight!

How many of you celebrate the Epiphany?

Advertisements

Il Presepe Napoletano – The Neapolitan Crèche

I Presepi di San Gregorio Armeno, Napoli

The word presepe comes from Latin “praesaepe” and means mangiatoia (manger).

The Italian tradition of the presepe originates with St. Francis of Assisi, who  in 1223, in Greggio (Umbria), for the first time represented the Nativity with a live scene.

The  first sculptural representation of the Italian Nativity scene is from the late ‘200, when it only included eight figures, Madonna, Giuseppe, Bambino Gesu`, asino, bue e Re Magi (Mary, Joseph, Baby Jesus, the donkey, the ox and the Wise Men). With time the presepe evolved to include the angels and the shepherds with their flock.

It was in the late ‘600 that the Presepe  Napoletano took a more theatrical aspect with its mix of sacred and profane and finally, in the  1700, the making of the presepe in Napoli became a true art.

It was then, in fact, that the presepe began to adorn the houses of the aristocracy and then finally became a widespread tradition. It was then that the Neapolitan artists gave the Sacred scene a more realistic setting with the introduction of elements from their everyday life.

In Napoli there is a street, Via San Gregorio Armeno, which is also known as “Via dei Presepi” (Presepi Street).

Via San Gregorio Armeno

The street is known worldwide for its botteghe artigianali (artisan workshop) where the artists of the presepe, throughout the year are busy producing i pastori. The word pastori literally means shepherds; however, in this case it refers to all the figures that make up the Nativity scene.

On the same street, the Chiesa (church) of San Gregorio Armeno was built in 930 on the foundations of a classic temple dedicated to Ceres.  The church was dedicated to San Gregorio Armeno in 1208. Although the art of the Neapolitan presepe is more recent, it was to Ceres that the population originally used to offer small votive clay figures made by the local artisans.

In Napoli the tradition of “fare il presepe” (to build the Nativity scene) includes an annual passeggiata (stroll) to the “Via dei Presepi”.

You can visit the workshops of San Gregorio Armeno year around and while during the rest of the year you might be able to better admire the pastori and observe the artisans at work, nothing compares to a visit during the Holiday Season. Hundreds of people walk through the narrow street looking for the perfect addition to their presepe or just looking for that unique piece to take home as a memento. In the evening the atmosphere is especially surreal with all the colorful lights blinking through the myriads of  Nativity scenes.

There you will find everything you need to build your own presepe from the houses made of cork or cardboard to pastori of all different sizes. The pastori are generally made in terra-cotta and they are either painted by hand and sometime also dressed  in tailored fabrics. Some of the pastori are original reproductions of the classic pastori of the ‘700 and you can expect to pay thousands of dollars for them.

Some of the figures also feature robotic mechanisms to reproduce the movement of the specific figure such the pizzaiolo (pizza maker) baking the pizza, or the laundress washing the linen.

Along with the basic elements there are some staples of the Neapolitan Presepe:

Benino (the sleeping shepherd), the wine maker, the fishmonger, the two godfathers, the monk, the gypsy, Stefania ( the young virgin who gave birth to St. Stephan), the prostitute, the zampognari (pipers), the comet, Il mercato (the open market) with the butcher, the fruit-stand, the melons-stand, the poulterer and so on and then the baker with his wood-burning oven, the church, the tavern, the river and the well.

If you are fortunate to be in Napoli during the Holiday Season make sure to take a stroll to San Gregorio Armeno. However be prepared to the jostling and “ammuina” (Neapolitan term for confusione – confusion). And if afterward you feel hungry, head to the Antica Pizzeria da Michele for one of my favorite pizza in the world, but . . . that is another blog!

I cannot omit to mention that in the last decades the masters of the presepe have also specialized in the reproduction of characters estranged to the tradition but that represent the characters from politics, sports, culture and entertainment. Examples are Berlusconi, Maradona, Totò, Pulcinella, Obama, Pavarotti and surely this year, Steve Jobs.

The presepe of My childhood included most of the traditional figures. The structure was made of cork and it represented a three level mountainous landscape with a winding path that from the top was leading to the village where the Holy Family was set in a grotto. There was also a secondary cave that was housing the tavern with the wine maker and its barrels. The church was sitting at an intermediate level and a beggar was standing nearby. At the same level there was the shepherd with his flock. Benino was sleeping under a tree while the zampognari were at the entrance of the grotto. There was a well in the peasant’s courtyard where the chickens and geese were scratching. The river was made with aluminum foil and many little houses were set into the scenery. The Re Magi (Wise Men) riding their camels were located up on the mountain far away from the village. There were a laundress and many more little figures around the village. The comet was shining on the grotto and a blue drape dotted with golden stars was the backdrop to the all scene.

During the Holiday Season the presepe was My doll house, every day I would move the Wise Men along the path (they had to reach the grotto on January 6), I would take the geese to the river or move the sheep around.

Today My Presepe is not as elaborated but I do have a small, delicate Nativity scene from San Gregorio Armeno.

My Presepe di San Gregorio Armeno

From San Gregorio Armeno I also treasure a single piece, a Zampognaro with his ragged clothes and his swollen red cheeks.

Lo Zampognaro

In the last few years I have also started to collect Nativity scenes of different style. My collection includes:

A Miniature presepe set into a light bulb which is the work of artist Annalisa Bonfanti of Naples.

Presepe in miniatura

A traditional Italian presepe in resin.

Classic Italian Presepe

A Holy Family from the Willow Tree collection.

Willow Tree Holly Family

A white Capodimonte Porcellain Nativity scene.

Presepe di Capodimonte

And a  German made, contemporary  Nativity set which I love for its simplicity.

Do you have a presepe in your home? Tell me about it.