La Befana

Although the Epiphany is the first feast I choose to celebrate in the New Year, it traditionally functioned as the culmination to various year-end celebrations.  For Italian Catholics, it is the final day of the 12 days of Christmas, when the divinity of the Christ child was revealed. 
In Tuscany the most enduring and popular symbols of the Christmas season are the presepi, depictions of Christ in the manger visited by the three wise men, and the befana, a witch who, flying on a broom, delivers gifts to children on the night before the Epiphany.

The word befana, in Tuscan vernacular, is a simplification of Pifania and the original Italian Epiphania.  Derived from the classical Greek Epiphaneia, it means “the divine made visible,” an allusion to the emergence of the sun from behind clouds.   In the ancient world the sun, its rebirth and the lengthening of the days were celebrated around the winter equinox, which in our Gregorian calendar falls on the 21st of December.

Romans celebrated the winter equinox, which on their Julian calendar fell on the 25th of December, in many ways, but the overarching week- long festival was the Saturnalia, honoring Saturn, the god of seed and sowing.  By mid-December the winter planting was done, the harvest stored and the wine cellared.   The days were the shortest of the year and agricultural work was minimal.   Business was suspended, gifts were exchanged, and the slaves were liberated from their normal duties. 

Emperor Aurelian declared December 25th to be the festival of the sun, Natalis Sol Invictus, celebrating the birth of the god Mithras, and other sun deities.   For 12 days, until the 6th of January, a tree trunk, that by the end of the year

represented the “old” Mother Nature, was slowly burned to exorcise the hardships of the previous year.  According to common belief, during the nights, the spirit of Diana, the goddess of fertility, would fly over the lands to make them productive.

Under Emperor Constantine in the 4th Century A.D., Christianity became the official religion of the Empire and, because the pagan celebrations around the festival of the sun were so popular, the Church fathers wisely co-opted some of the myths, symbols and practices of the ancient religions, and even decreed that Christ’s birthday occurred on December 25th. In 391 A.D., Emperor Theodosius 1 prohibited all other religions and cults, and temples to ancient Roman Gods began to be destroyed.  So, the old proverb about the Epiphany could well have been written, “the feast that put an end to all the other feasts.”



            Sergio arrives with the figure of the Befana, and then the feast begins…




In rural Tuscany, the Epiphany is considered to be a magical night, when animals gain the power of speech, as another proverb says, “in the stable speaks the ass, the cow and the horse.”   To avoid that the animals speak poorly of their masters, the farmers are known to feed their animals as much as they can eat, a superstition that existed since the time of the Saturnalia when, not only did the slaves eat with their masters, but animals too were brought and fed at the masters’ eating halls.  Men young and old dress up as a befana and the accompanying “befanotti,” and then travel from one farmhouse to the next with an accordion and other instruments.  They sing the befana and other popular songs, eating and drinking well along the way. 






The befanotti came to play and sing, “Buonasera a tutti quanti, questa sera è Befania e col nome di Maria vi si viene a salutà...”  Good evening to all, this eve is the Epiphany and in Mary’s name we come to salute you.





           They finished up with a rousing version of When the Saints Go Marching In.

In Sorano, the various groups of befanotti eventually gather around a large pyre in the early hours of the morning of the 12th day of Christmas.  At the top is placed an effigy of the old witch, in this case representing Mother Nature tired from having devoted all her energies to the past year, who is sacrificed to fire so that she can be reborn from its ashes in the New Year.





Before Christianity came along and spoiled the party, it was overall a rowdy time in the ancient Roman Empire.  In fact, the Romans tended to party throughout the year, as festivals actually outnumbered workdays.  Cato. in his treatise On Farming, written around 200 B.C., noted that each member of a household would be allotted up to about a liter of wine a day over the year but, for the Compitalia and Saturnalia feasts, the individual portion was increased to almost 4 liters.  It is estimated that the yearly per capita consumption of wine in Italy today is about 75 liters, but from what I have observed and experienced, Tuscans drink a lot more than that, indicating that ancient Roman customs have not been totally expunged.   I asked Luigino the potter how much wine he drinks a day.  At eighty, Luigino had a massive heart attack, and he unhappily explained that his doctor had insisted that he reduce his consumption of wine to only 1 liter a day.  Up until his illness, he customarily drank three liters: one at lunch, the second at dinner, and another during the course of the day.  Considering the hard labor of the potter, Luigino undoubtedly built up a thirst, but despite all that he drank, his output of pots was prodigious, and he could not possibly have been inebriated when he worked, because throwing on a potter’s wheel and creating elegant clay vessels take great skill and concentration.

Sorano does have a few heavier drinkers who idly hang around the bars and imbibe copious amounts of wine, and also far stronger liquors, like amaro and grappa.  Malo, the brother of a world famous film pornographer, cut an unusual figure for Sorano the two or three years he was around.  He was always impeccably dressed and, when he encountered anyone on his way to or from a bar, even my invariably sloppily attired self covered in plaster dust from the work of renovation in my apartment, he would pause, doff his hat, slightly incline his head and slur, in Italian, as if he were addressing a most distinguished gentleman on the streets of his native Venice,  “Good Day, Sir.”  My fondest memory of Malo regarded his beautiful companion, who I surprised one day as I was working in my first apartment in town.  While knocking the crumbling centuries-old plaster from my walls, I uncovered an interesting niche and pounded the volcanic tufa at its center with so much vigor that the block suddenly fell through into the next room, which happened to be Malo’s bedroom in the adjacent apartment.  I popped my head through the wall, and there she was in all her glory standing with hands on hips.  She let me have a good look, for at least three or four seconds before scurrying out of the room.  Considering her marvelous attributes, I imagined that she could well have been one of Malo’s brother’s actresses. 

Malo, too, had some filmic aspirations, and knowing that I had experience with documentary filmmaking, he asked that I help him film the Easter procession in town one year.  I demurred, but he did make the film, and I’m sure that he would have come back, perhaps with his brother, if he had known that I, several years later, was to act in that same procession and be crucified as Christ, after having lugged the cross through the town streets.  I fantasized that his companion would have been an exceptional Mary Magdalen. 

Sandraccio, originally from Sorano, is long gone, but shortly before he died I bought a lovely old cast iron bathtub from him.  Before we lurched off in his little three-wheeled, two-stroke “apetto” pick-up to collect the tub, we shared a compulsory bottle of wine at Fidalma’s trattoria where he was one of the ruddy regulars.  He had used the tub to water his horse many years before, and so we had to drag it from the middle of his abandoned field, and then lift it up onto the back of the apetto.  After expending that energy, and because he was so amazed that I was prepared to spend 10 dollars for the tub, he then produced a full bottle of vov, a sickly and strong liquor made from fermented sugar and eggs, and insisted that we drink it all before returning to town.  Somehow we got down to my house, and deposited the tub in the bathroom I was building at the time.


Sandraccio, as it happens, was also a storied tombarolo- an Etruscan tomb pillager.  Apparently over many years he had made some significant discoveries, which unfortunately probably all ended up on the black market.  On one occasion he was caught by the police standing over a freshly dug up cache of ancient loot, outside a tomb.   Despite the gravity of the situation Sandraccio would not stop giggling to himself, and the policemen could only think that he was drunk.  Soon thereafter a noise erupted from the tomb, and out crawled another person in a black cowl with Etruscan pot in hand, a good friend of Sandraccio, and fellow tombarolo- the town priest.  No charges were filed.

Sandraccio has also gone down in the town’s lore for uncharacteristically attending Midnight Mass on one Christmas Eve. He sat in the front pew of the Church, next to a group of dark-skinned Indian nuns, and when the priest revealed the plaster representation of the Christ child, Sandraccio jumped up and yelled in mock astonishment, to the general hilarity of the congregation (clearly making his point about the increasingly changing face of Sorano’s inhabitants,) “Everyone, this year He’s been born black!”  It might not have been so surprising if Sandraccio had attended, even with some piety, the Epiphany Mass, which celebrates not only the adoration by the three Maji in the manger, but also miracles that manifested Christ’s divinity: his baptism and then, the Kingly achievement in any old Tuscan’s eyes, when he wondrously transformed water into wine. 

Like most townspeople, my neighbor Annetta is far more restrained with her alcohol consumption.  I have had the great fortune of being fed in her home countless times over the years, and much of what I have learned about Italian cooking has been due to her motherly tutelage.   Annetta will invite me to lunch if I turn up at her door looking appropriately famished, and so she may then ask me to shop for some of the ingredients, or I’ll just bring a bottle of the wine I make.   As she only drinks a small glass of watered down wine with her meal, I suspect that she has squirreled away a large stack of bottles in her cellar.  My adoptive Aunt Ivana lives further down the way and I initially became friendly with her because when I first came to Sorano I would buy the wine she makes with her sons.  Once Ivana’s husband died, I began to be invited for her delicious meals as well.  Ivana and Annetta are friends by proximity, and have known one another for at least 75 years. 
They make the same dishes in much the same way, but have a very poor opinion of one another’s cooking- even though I’m sure that they have never eaten together.   At lunchtime I sometimes have to tiptoe by Annetta’s house if I am on my way to, or back from, Ivana’s, as I have learned that they are quite competitive and rather jealous- certainly all to my benefit.   In addition to cooking lessons, I get caught up on town gossip during the meals, and regaled with stories of their past lives and Sorano’s forgotten traditions.

For Annetta, Ivana, and all the other children who lived on the little lane where I now have my home, the Epiphany was the most anticipated holiday of the year.  On the evening of the 5th of January, one of the children dressed up in rags and a shawl as the befana, an ugly old witch.  She carried a spindle and distaff, which were used in all the households at mid-winter time for spinning hemp (the hemp had been grown in plots down in the valley below town during the course of the year, and was the most important local fiber used for making bed-sheets, towels and some clothing.) The befanotti, made up of the other children, their faces smeared with soot, would accompany the befana on her rounds going to all the local homes.  At each doorway they would sing the song of the befana, and hoped to be rewarded with simple treats to eat.   Later that same evening, eight black socks, corresponding to Annetta and her seven siblings, were hung above the hearth, waiting for the arrival of the real Befana, who flew during the night on her broomstick to all the children’s homes, slid down the chimney and left dried fruit, nuts and perhaps a fresh orange for the good children, and sometimes a lump of coal for those who had behaved badly.

The figure of the Befana was originally inspired by Diana, the Roman fertility goddess that in early Christian times was vilified and transformed into a frightening Satanic spirit.  Later, because of her enduring popularity as a beneficent deity, the Befana was incorporated into the Christian mythology.   The simple story is that the Magi, while following the guiding star to Christ’s birthplace, came to a rest house and were served by a kindly old woman.  As the Magi departed they asked the woman to join them on their journey.  She chose to remain at home and clean up after the visitors, sweeping the floor with her broom.  The woman soon repented, and decided to set off by herself in search of the Christ child, with her broom and a bag of gifts.  Never finding him, she has continued her search to this day, delivering gifts to all children on the night of the Epiphany, in the hope that one might be the true son of God.