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befana venice
The Befana Regatta On Canal Grande by Marco Secchi

Epiphany In Italy

The Befana. Many years ago, during the days preceding 6th January (Epiphany), all farmers in Veneto used to gather mounds of bundles of branches and corn canes in the centre of their farm courtyards.

On the evening of 5th January, they used to place, on top of these mounds, a dummy made up of old clothes, with a handkerchief on the head to represent an old woman.

The Befana burning
The Befana burning

Then, at midnight, they used to lit the mounds and start a bonfire. Whilst the fire burned, the farmers and all their families would dance and sing old Venetian songs, like

Buielo caretelo, ogni vaca el so vedelo, ogni femena el so putelo

(Bonfire barrel, every cow has its own calf, every woman has her own child)

From the way the fire burned and the way the flames would move, old men would forecast weather information and wishes for the crop year.

The tradition of this bonfire, also called pirola/parola” or panevin” (as it is called in Friuli), goes back a long long time ago, way before the Roman period.

Some historians think it was a way to keep afar evil powers, others think it was a rite for passing from the old year to the new.

This tradition is still kept alive in small villages all around the region of Veneto and usually, before burning the fire, a person dressed as an old lady, reads aloud the forecast for the year to come and then gives all children a small stocking stuffed with sweets and candies.

Befana
Befana

This old lady is the Befana, an imaginary figure which during the night of 5th January, climbs down chimneys and fills up the stockings with goodies if the child has been good, or coal and cinder if the child has been naughty.

This happens exactly on the same night in which the three wise men delivered their gifts to baby Jesus. In Italian collective imagination the exotic figure of the three wise men and that of witches has blended and created the character of Befana.

She is usually very old, badly dressed, with no teeth, a big nose and hair all over the place. Children used to leave some food and a bottle of wine on the kitchen table before going to bed, so the old lady would rest a little before starting her deliveries again and leave nicer gifts!

The children also would sing this song

La Befana vien de note, con le scarpe tute rote, co’l vestito ala romana, viva viva la Befana

(The Befana comes at night with her shoes all broken dressed as a roman hurray for the Befana)

Have you ever wondered why we use stockings during the Christmas period?

Most probably because in the past they did not have paper bags and plastic boxes and containers – remember that until 30-40 years ago we used to go shopping with cloth bags and baskets. Stockings were used to hold and dry walnuts. Nothing more natural than to use a stocking and to fill it up with candies, sweets and little toys for the children.

La Befana o In Venice

In Venice the Traditional Regata delle Befane takes place on 6th January at 11am.

The Regata of Befana in Venice by Marco Secchi

It starts at Palazzo Balbi and ends in Rialto. It is a playful race between the old owners of the oldest rowing Association of the City, the Bucintoro, who dressed as “maranteghe” (befane) as they say in the Venetian dialect, challenge each other in the central part of the Channel from S. Toma to the Rialto Bridge.

Epiphany in Venice is also important because it marks the beginning of the Carnival and an old saying went like this

Epifania tute le feste la scoa via!

Epiphany all celebrations brushes away!

Buona Befana!

 

 

 

 

About The Author

Pretending to be a food & travel blogger, giving it a go as a cooking instructor and culinary guide. Venice loving daughter and wanna-be guru. #aphotoofveniceaday Offering cooking lessons at http://www.cookinvenice.com As a friend once said: A Fire Cracker full of energy, writing a book on Cicchetti!

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