Sunday, January 6, 2013

Magicians and Witches in Venice - Epiphany 2013

Magi bear gifts to an infant Jesus in one of the earliest known depictions. 3rd Century Sarcophagus, Vatican Museums, Rome, Italy
(Venice, Italy) The Three Wise Men star in nativity scenes all over the world at Christmas, and are remembered in song, such as We Three Kings of Orient Are. In fact, many unusual characters appear during Christmas time around different parts of the globe, which is what happens when you lay a new religion over existing celebrations. How Santa Claus and his reindeer bringing gifts got tangled up with the birth of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is a question that has been examined by scholars and historians for centuries.

Befana in Rome
Here in Italy, there is another element that has been added to the mix, and that is La Befana, who is a witch, complete with broomstick. Like Santa, she gives gifts to good children, and coal to naughty ones. Here is one version of how La Befana met the Three Wise Men, or the Magi, or the Magicians. From Wikipedia:

Christian legend had it that Befana was approached by the biblical magi, also known as the Three Wise Men (or the three kings) a few days before the birth of the Infant Jesus. They asked for directions to where the Son of God was, as they had seen his star in the sky, but she did not know. She provided them with shelter for a night, as she was considered the best housekeeper in the village, with the most pleasant home. The magi invited her to join them on the journey to find the baby Jesus, but she declined, stating she was too busy with her housework. Later, La Befana had a change of heart, and tried to search out the astrologers and Jesus. That night she was not able to find them, so to this day, La Befana is searching for the little baby. She leaves all the good children toys and candy (“caramelle”) or fruit, while the bad children get coal (“carbone”), onions or garlic.[3]

And here in Venice, the holiday has added a watery element that I have written about many times before, starting back in 2009:

Befana Regata and Epiphany


Befana Regata and Epiphany

The Epiphany, or the Twelfth Day of Christmas, on January 6th is a national holiday in Italy. It is also the day of the La Befana, a witch who hands out candy and gifts for good children, and coal for bad children, similar to Santa Claus.

In Venice, the holiday has morphed into something truly unique. During the Regata delle Befane, male Venetian rowers dress in drag as female witches, and have a little regata, or race. 


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It's strange, isn't it, that for more than two thousand years we still celebrate the birth of the controversial figure named Jesus Christ, a being who gave this planet a message of compassion, love, hope and redemption.

Noli me tangere - Titian 1514
 Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness: for they will be satisfied. Matthew 5:10

Here is an interesting article by Matt Kettman from the December 20, 2012 Santa Barbara Independent entitled Christ the Activist regarding "Jean-Pierre Isbouts, a professor at Santa Barbara’s Fielding Graduate University whose new tome, In the Footsteps of Jesus: A Chronicle of His Life and the Origins of Christianity, was released last month by National Geographic Books."

Sermon on the Mount by Henrik Olrik
Drawing on an extensive collection of multidisciplinary research, from ancient histories to biblical archeology to Greco-Roman economics, Isbouts paints a vivid portrait of the world as Jesus knew it, so scene-setting that Jesus doesn’t even appear as a topic until more than 100 pages into the 300-page book. Among other theories, Isbouts posits that Jesus was born near Nazareth, not Bethlehem; that he was a construction worker who toiled on new Roman cities rather than a carpenter; that he valued women as equal to men; and, perhaps most critically, that his ministry was as much about political and social activism as it was about religious belief. And in that latter discovery, that Jesus’s role was about bringing economic freedom and everyday justice to a land deeply divided between the rich and the poor, there’s much for our contemporary world to learn in this Christmas season, even lapsed Catholics like me.

Happy Epiphany!

Ciao from Venice,
Cat

1 comment:

  1. The Three Wise Men star in nativity scenes all over the world at Christmas, and are remembered in song, such as We Three Kings of Orient Are. In fact, many unusual characters appear during Christmas time around different parts of the globe, which is what happens when you lay a new religion over existing celebrations. How Santa Claus and his reindeer bringing gifts got tangled up with the birth of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is a question that has been examined by scholars and historians for centuries.

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