Monday, January 11, 2016

Epiphany in Florence

Annamaria on Monday

January 6th, the twelfth day of Christmas, is the traditional end of holiday celebrations in Italy.  These days, many Italians call the day by the name of the Christmas witch.

Santa Claus has taken over the role of delivering Christmas gifts in the rest of the world, but though the old man from the North Pole can be seen hereabouts, so also can the traditional Italian bringer of gifts—La Befana.

In Italian folklore, La Befana, flying on a broom, comes down the chimney and brings good children candies, fruits, and little gifts and bad children lumps of coal.  These days—Italians being a child-friendly race—the lumps of coal are actually very dark caramels.

The name La Befana is thought to be a corruption of the word “epiphania,” the name for the feast commemorating the visit of the three kings to the infant Jesus.  Those oriental visitors brought the newborn baby gifts.  And their legend figures in the lore of La Befana.  There are many version of her connection with the wise men’s journey to the babe in Bethlehem.  My favorite has her a loving mother whose child has died.  Following the star leading them to Jesus, the kings from the east pass her way.  Mad with grief, on hearing of the child they seek, she imagines that he is her son.  She too goes with gifts for the child.  Delighted to receive her, the infant Jesus gives her a gift in return.  She will be the mother of every child in Italy.  On the eve of January 6th every year, she goes to every house where there is a child and leaves gifts.  Like a good mother, she rewards the good children with sweets and admonishes the bad ones with lumps of coal.

Anthropologists trace the legend of La Befana back to new-year pagan celebrations of ancient Rome, during which gifts were exchanged and fertility and agriculture celebrated.  As you can imagine, those New Year’s feasts had a licentious and raucous character.  Here is Ottorino Respighi’s musical portrayal of the modern celebration in the Piazza Navona in which you will hear echoes of those riotous Romans of old.

Detail of Gozzoli's gorgeous Adoration of the Magi in the Palazzo Medici-Ricardi

Here in Florence, the city celebrates La Befana with a parade in Renaissance costume.

I celebrated with friends at lunch in my favorite restaurant in the world.  Tortino ai carciofi, osso buco alla fiorentina, pera carmelatta.  EXQUISITE!



  1. Another little jewel from MIE that I'd never heard of: La Befana. Thanks, AmA! I trust you were treated to lots of non-coal treats...

  2. Thank you, EvKa. The friends pictured above gave me an orchid! The lunch was better than any candy. I am in Sicily now. Stand by for a tour next week.

  3. Just so you understand this, sis. I'M SO JEALOUS! :) But keep I freeze my baklava off in non-florentine Washington, PA.