Today, January 6th, is a national holiday in Italy. Coming so soon after Sunday the majority of Italians will have constructed a “ponte”, or bridge, so that yesterday too was a sort of holiday for this country as well. As any Christian will know January 6th is Epiphany, the day when the wise men arrive from the east to present their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the baby Jesus. The whole event is incomparably summed up in the poem by T. S. Eliot when one of the Magi looks back on the difficult journey they had undertaken. I can do nothing more here than quote in full this sublime poem:
The Journey Of The Magi
‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.
Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
In Italy it’s also the time of” La Befana” when a very old, ugly white-witch comes on the eve of January 6th to fill up the stockings of good children with sweets and those of bad children with coal (at least that’ll be useful for heating up our houses on these extremely cold evenings.) La Befana is, of course, a corruption of the word “epiphany” but how did this beneficent old crone come onto the scene in Italian households in the first place?
As with the majority of Christian rites, ”la Befana” has a pagan origin. In Roman times the goddess of fertility would sweep the skies at the winter solstice to augur the return of growth in the fields. The broom was a symbol of the cleansing of the earth for the new forthcoming growing season. (Harry Potter eat your heart out…).
The early Christians condemned such practises as heretical and this beautiful goddess was thus turned into a horrible witch. However, the locals would have none of this and, in her uglified version, the Befana returned to reign supreme in children’s minds in this custom.
Indeed, a further story was added to retain la Befana’s credibility. In this version the Three Wise Men meet an aged crone and aske her the way. Only afterwards does la Befana realise the importance of this encounter and tries to find the Magi. She asks everywhere and, where indications are had, gives sweets and presents to the children of the households hoping that one of the houses will, indeed, shelter the baby Jesus. Originally children would place shoes and stockings to help the Befana on her quest. Later, shoes were discarded but the stockings remained, to be filled with goodies.
Epiphany is also the time when, by popular consent, the Christmas season ends. As the couplet says.
Tutte le feste porta via
(“Epiphany ends all festivities”).
Liturgically, this is quite incorrect, however since it’s the presentation of Christ in the temple that officially ends the Christmas season, on February 2nd, at the festival called the Candelora where candles are presented and blessed to symbolise the advent of Christ’s light upon the world.
La Befana is celebrated everywhere in Italy with many local variants. In our area the best celebrations are to be found at Barga but there will also be children-oriented events in Bagni di di Lucca. Since the winter holidays are so short in Italy it also means that the children will return soon afterwards to school, hopefully in a positive mood after their days of being spoilt rotten.
There is a Tuscan variant of the little rhyme about the Befana which goes as follows:
La Befana vien di notte
con le scarpe tutte rotte
attraversa tutti i tetti
porta bambole e confetti .
(The Befana comes by night
With shoes in disrepair
She crosses all the roofs
Bringing dolls and lots of sweets).
How do we adults fit into all this? In 2007 I was one of the wise men (Melchior, I think) at one of the most beautiful presepi viventi (living cribs) in our part of the world: the presepe of Equi Terme just across the “border” in Lunigiana.
Alas, this presepe is no more since the 2013 earthquake put end to the celebrations as the whole village was declared unsafe and little has been done to bring it back. Moreover, the grand lady of Equi Terme, Vinicia Fogacci, the inspirer of the Presepe, Dame of the Republic of Italy, owner of a lovely shop and the provider of exceptional hospitality towards us when we took part in the presepe, has passed away. I learnt the news the other day, by phone call from my friend Giovanni, just as we were in the tribune of one of the greatest holy sites of Italy the basilica of Santa Maria Annnunziata in Florence.
We could do nothing else but say a little prayer in memory of one of the most wonderful ladies we have ever met. Truly, it’s “the worst part of the year.”
(The great Vinicia aged 90-plus with Giovanni in 2007)
Later I received this moving message regarding the incomparable Vinicia from Giovanni. I’ll leave it untranslated so you can practise your Italian…
Con profondo dolore nel cuore, i soci del Gruppo Culturale “Ippolito Rosellini” si uniscono al lutto dei familiari e degli abitanti di Equi Terme per la scomparsa del Cavaliere della Repubblica Vinicia Fogacci, imprenditrice. Vinicia, persona di grande umanità e semplicità, memoria storica e decana di una comunità, ha esercitato le doti dell’ospitalità e della Carità cristiana per una lunga e intensa vita. Vinicia è stata sempre lungimirante e attenta nell’amore per il suo paese in particolare e per l’Italia in generale.
Animata da grande senso civico, dedizione al lavoro, rispetto delle Leggi e dello Stato, amante della verità, madre di famiglia esemplare, ha dispensato il suo amore materno non solo ai figli ma anche a coloro i quali, venendo a contatto con la sua meravigliosa persona e ricevendo il suo aiuto, la sentivano come una madre generosa, comprensiva, illuminata. Vinicia, sempre combattiva, sempre in trincea fino oltre i novanta anni, è stata abbattuta dalle ultime disgrazie di Equi: il vedere un paese prostrato non solo dalla crisi economica ma anche devastato dal terremoto e senza aiuto per poter tornare una fiorente comunità, l’aveva colpita. Terremo sempre viva la sua memoria e speriamo che il suo spirito continui a vigilare amorevolmente su Equi e su di noi.
(Above, our own take on the Three Wise Men)