Monday, January 6, 2014

Befana 2014 - Epiphany! Venice has got the Relics of St. Nick!

Nativity scene at Church of the Redentore
(Venice, Italy) In the United States, we have squished many traditions together to come up with our version of Christmas and Santa Claus, a completely fictitious figure probably derived from Saint Nicholas -- who was a real person -- combined with a dash of Odin, the Nordic god who led the Wild Hunt through the skies.There are so many different Christmas celebrations all over the world that combine Christian, pre-Christian and pagan traditions, each unique to a particular country or region, that it is nearly impossible to determine what is based on actual events, and what is manufactured.

One thing the US seems to have lost completely is the celebration of Twelfth Night, January 5, the Eve of Epiphany, and the Epiphany itself, which is today, January 6, and the end of the Christmas season. We still sing the "Twelve Days of Christmas," but do not stop to ponder the origins of the tune.

Giant stocking hanging from Rialto Bridge
Before there was Santa Claus, there was La Befana, a witch who rode on a broomstick, filled stockings hung on the chimney by Italian children -- with sweets if they were good, or coal if they were bad. Personally, I think that Santa Claus has many elements in common with La Befana -- I wonder when he started coming down the chimney and leaving treats in stockings. Did someone "borrow" some of La Befana's characteristics and impose them on Santa? From Italy Heritage:

"The name Befana appeared historically for the first time in writing in a poem by Agnolo Firenzuola in 1549. She is portrayed like an old ugly woman, dressed in dark rags who during the night between 5th and 6th January flies over the houses riding her broom and entering through the chimneys. Into the socks that children left hanging near the fireplace she leaves candies and gifts for good children, black coal (actually black sugar today), garlic and onions to the bad ones."

Befana Regatta - Photo: Marco Secchi for Getty Images at
The 6th of January is national holiday here in Italy. It is when the Three Magi followed The Yonder Star on Epiphany (not Christmas -- that was the shepherds, not the Wise Men) and gathered round the manger bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh for the infant Jesus. And that is where La Befana comes in. Again, from Italy Heritage:

"The name "Befana" is a popular version of the Greek term "Epiphany" which was the festivity following Christmas, commemorating the visit of the Magi to the Baby Jesus on 6th January. According to the legend the three wise men on their journey were stopped by an old woman with a broom who asked them where they were going. They told her that they were following a star that would lead them to a newborn baby, and invited her to come along. But she replied that she was busy sweeping and cleaning and did not go. When she realized that the baby was the Redeemer that all the world had been waiting for her regret was so great that she continues to wander about Italy and at the Epiphany (January 6, when the Wise Men finally found the Child Jesus), begins rewarding good children and disappointing those who were bad."

In Venice, the holiday has morphed into its own unique celebration with Venetian male rowers dressed in drag racing in a short regatta on the Grand Canal. I have written about this many, many times before:

Magicians and Witches in Venice - Epiphany 2013

Befane on the Street Photo: Cat Bauer
January 6 is also the Day of the beloved Saint Nicholas, a real-life man known for his miracles and gift-giving, and from whom the legend of Santa Claus originated. Something I just learned when researching this post is that half the bones of St. Nick are in Bari, and the rest are right here in Venice out on the Lido in San Nicolò al Lido! Bari has got the big bones and Venice has got the smaller bones -- it has been proven scientifically. This is so amazing that I do not understand why Venice does not make a bigger deal out of the fact that we've got Santa right here in town -- or at least half of Santa:) From Wikipedia:

"Nicholas' tomb in Myra had become a popular place of pilgrimage. Because of the many wars and attacks in the region, some Christians were concerned that access to the tomb might become difficult. For both the religious and commercial advantages of a major pilgrimage site, the Italian cities of Venice and Bari vied to get the Nicholas relics. 

Taking advantage of the confusion, in the spring of 1087, sailors from Bari in Apulia seized part of the remains of the saint from his burial church in Myra, over the objections of the Orthodox monks. Returning to Bari, they brought the remains with them and cared for them. The remains arrived on 9 May 1087. There are numerous variations of this account. In some versions those taking the relics are characterized as thieves or pirates, in others they are said to have taken them in response to a vision wherein Saint Nicholas himself appeared and commanded that his relics be moved in order to preserve them from the impending Muslim conquest. 

Church of San Nicolò on the Lido
Currently at Bari, there are two churches at his shrine, one Roman Catholic and one Orthodox. Sailors from Bari collected just half of Nicholas' skeleton, leaving all the minor fragments in the grave. These were collected by Venetian sailors during the first crusade and brought to Venice, where a church to St. Nicholas, the patron of sailors, was built on the Lido. This tradition was confirmed in two scientific investigations of the relics in Bari and Venice, which revealed that the relics in the two cities belong to the same skeleton."

Le Donne in Rosa give out the goodies
After two days of rain, the sun burst out in all its glory for the Befana regatta this morning. Afterwards, everyone had mulled wine or hot chocolate and galani, delicious Venetian sweets, crispy, crumbly ribbons of fried pasta covered with powered sugar. Yum!

Ciao from Veneiza,
Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog


  1. January 6 is also the Day of the beloved Saint Nicholas, a real-life man known for his miracles and gift-giving, and from whom the legend of Santa Claus originated. Something I just learned when researching this post is that half the bones of St. Nick are in Bari, and the rest are right here in Venice out on the Lido in San Nicolò al Lido!

  2. ¡En Puerto Rico el 6 de enero se celebra en grande con la adoración a los Tres Santos Reyes Magos! que disfruten el artículo!

  3. Epiphany in the Greek and other Orthodox Christian world, from which the Catholic Church split in 1053, is the anniversary of Christ's baptism. It has nothing to do with the Magi or witches on broomsticks. If you are in the vicinity of st George of the Greeks cathedral in Venice, on epiphany, then you are likely to see the ceremony of the blessing of the waters. I have not personally visited yet on epiphany, but this would usually involve the priest tossing the cross into the waters, whereafter the faithful will dive into the sea/river/waters to retrieve it. the person who retrieves it would then be blessed with good luck for the coming year.

    As for the bones of St Nicholas, this is just another example of western European plundering and desecration of the Orthodox communities of the Near and Middle East. You need only look at the wonders in the reliquary of St Peters and the Doge's palace to see the treasures of Byzantium/Eastern Orthodoxy, plundered in the bloodshed of fellow christians, in the name of the Catholic church.

  4. Thank you for your comment. I, too, have never been to the Greek Church in Venice on Epiphany, but am curious as to how it is celebrated. It is difficult to imagine the faithful diving into the canal by the church...

    Although originally the baptism of Christ was celebrated on Epiphany in the Roman Catholic Church, along with the visit by the Magi, that ended centuries ago, as you say. It was not put back on the calendar as a feast day until 1955. These days it is celebrated the Sunday after Epiphany.

    Having the bones of saints was a big business for Venice. In addition to St. Nicholas, they also snatched the body of St. Mark and St. Rocco, along with various body parts of different saints. Holy relics brought prestige and pilgrims to the city.

    My favorite icon that the Venetians looted is the Madonna Nicopeia, which they brought back to Venice after the Fourth Crusade when the Christian Crusaders sacked Constantinople and their fellow Christians. It never ceases to amaze me what horrific crimes have been committed in the name of Jesus Christ, whose message was to turn the other cheek and love thy brother as thyself. Human beings seem capable of flipping everything on its head.