Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Befana Regata and Epiphany

(Venice, Italy) 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. The finish line is below my apartment, so I usually have a Befana party to close the holiday season. No one ever seems to know, exactly, what time the race starts or finishes. Some posters from the Comune said to go over to the fish market at 11:30AM for hot mulled wine and sweets, so I thought 11AM would be a good time for the party. It turned out it was too late. Note to self: the Befana regata celebration starts at 10AM!

A Venetian chorus started singing Venetian songs at the foot of the Rialto Bridge at about 10AM, so I called the documentary filmmaker Anny Cararro and told her to come earlier because she wanted to shoot some footage. We started getting all teary-eyed listening to the songs. For me, the Befana regata is one of the most Venetian holidays because the Venetians really run the show. The acoustics are very particular at the foot of the Rialto Bridge, and the voices of the chorus soared over the Grand Canal, echoing off the palazzi and skipping across the water. An enormous stocking is hung from the top of the Rialto Bridge, and with the men rowing frantically dressed as women... well, you can only imagine.

One year, I spent La Befana in the Veneto on the mainland, and out there they burned her image, sort of like a scarecrow/witch, in a huge bonfire. She then resurrected into human form and handed out sweets or coal, and then later the children went in and sat on her lap while the adults munched on traditional sweets and drank hot mulled wine.

The Twelfth Day of Christmas, or the Epiphany is celebrated to commemorate the day the Three Magi arrived with their gifts for the infant Jesus. How did a witch get involved with that?

According to Wikipedia, La Befana may have pagan origins, and since many Christian holidays and images can trace their origins back before the Church got involved, I am putting my money on that theory. La Befana feels pagan:

A popular belief is that her name derives from the festival of Epiphany, but there is evidence to suggest that Befana is descended from the Sabine/Roman goddess named Strina. In the book Vestiges of Ancient Manners and Customs, Discoverable in Modern Italy and Sicily by Rev. John J. Blunt (John Murray, 1823), the author says:

"This Befana appears to be heir at law of a certain heathen goddess called Strenia, who presided over the new-year's gifts, 'Strenae,' from which, indeed, she derived her name. (D. Augustin. de Civit. Dei, lib. iv. c. 16.) Her presents were of the same description as those of the Befana—figs, dates, and honey. (Ov. Fast. i. 185.) Moreover her solemnities were vigorously opposed by the early Christians on account of their noisy, riotous, and licentious character" (Vide Rosini, ed. Dempster. lib. i. c.13, de Dea Strenia}. – page 120

To read the entire article, go here:

In any event, I would like to thank my guests for their excellent conversation and generosity in creating a spectacular table. Each person contributed something, so we had lasagna, salad, mushrooms, cheeses and plenty of fine wine, panettone and chocolates!

Ciao from Venice,
Venetian Cat - Venice Blog

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