Saturday, January 06, 2007


Holiday lights hanging over a street near Campo de' Fiori

Happy New Year! I hope you all had a great holiday season. Sono tornata—I’m back—and I’m looking forward to bringing you a year of pulling back the curtains to peek behind the scenes here in the Eternal City.

Kicking off 2007 is a holiday with a uniquely Roman twist: the Epiphany, more commonly known here as “La Befana.” The Epiphany is a Christian holiday based on the story of the Three Wise Men who brought gifts to the baby Jesus. Prior to Christianity, pagan Rome celebrated a festival after the winter solstice in honor of Strenia, Roman goddess of the new year. Once Christianity was born, the pagan tradition was carried on but adapted.

This is when Befana comes in, a modified version of the word epiphany in Italian. The legend as I know it says that the Three Wise Men got lost in their travels to find the baby Jesus, and saw a house with smoke coming out of the chimney, so they stopped to ask for directions. An old woman who was sort of a happy housekeeping witch called Befana answered the door and gave the men directions. Shortly after they left, however, she realized that she had given them the wrong directions and went out trying to catch up to them. She ends up wandering the world in search of the Three Wise Men, and along the way she gives children toys in stockings, or coal if they had been bad during the previous year. Here in Italy the tradition continues with children getting stockings on the morning of the 6th, filled with candy (including rock candy for coal) and toys. Befana comes through the chimney the night of the 5th (but she has her broom to sweep up after herself), and apparently some households even leave her a nice glass of wine and some regional specialty to munch on. Don’t you love this Italian upgrade from milk and cookies?

Martha at’s Italy for Visitors site has a nice summary of the Befana tradition here and you can check out the Wikipedia version here.

The Befana tradition is known throughout Italy, but the original and biggest of the Befana street fairs is still held in Rome each year on January 6 in Piazza Navona, about a 10-minute stroll from my apartments. It was originally held in front of the Pantheon, but in 1870, when Rome became the capital and the city’s population expanded rapidly, it was moved to its current home in Piazza Navona. The fair takes place in the evenings beginning December 1st, but it really hits its peak on the day of the Epiphany, the last night of the fair.

The crowds are crazy, with lots of bumping into other people and traffic jams where you don’t move at all. But I managed to brave this year’s party and get some shots to kick off our new year. Let's try to walk, shall we?

Viva La Befana! When you see 'W' it means Viva.

This little boy was fascinated by Befane that would light up and move when you clapped, as the seller (on the right) was doing continuously. All together now: "Clap on! Clap off!"

Keep an eye on your belongings: it gets pretty crazy out there!

Befana: she's everywhere! Stockings, sacks for candy, and flying Befane.

Do you think Giacomo della Porta, one of the designers of St. Peter's Basilica and in 1575 this fountain as well, could ever have imagined what his famous Fontana del Moro would witness in 2007?

This Befana doesn't look exactly like she'd clean up after herself. I think this one is definitely leaving only carbone behind.

One last shot just for you foodies out there. These are called ciambelle, and are basically just what they look like: humongous donuts. Homer Simpson would be in paradiso for sure. And hey, Finny, you can get Nutella on them too!


Kelli said...

Yum! And what a fun feast! I am so glad you made it home safely.

Preya said...

Yumm....are they more cakey in texture or more like a krispy Kreme? Befana sounds cool!

Jenny said...

That looks like a lot of fun, and those ciambelle look fantastic! They're making me hungry...

mad said...

Welcome back!!!!

Love the tradition of La Bafana. Another excuse for candy and toys.

The Ciambelle look yummy, and you said they come with nutella as thats heaven.

enthusiastically human said...

i found your site via africankelli--how fun to live in rome during new years! did you throw your trash out the window?

gracie said...

It used to be my fav day of the year when I was a little girl! That old lady scared me a little, but I got only nice presents and sweets, so I guess I was pretty good back then, right?
Btw, welcome back Shelley!

Shelley - At Home in Rome said...

Glad to be back!

So, Preya, I didn't try them (I know, shame on me) but I don't think anyone can do donuts QUITE like Krispy Kreme, agreed?

Jenny--now that I look back they are making me hungry too! I should have bought one but they were so huge and of course I was just back from my US visit/junk food binge.

Mad: Didn't know you liked Nutella too! Can you find that in Australia?

Enthusiastically: Trash out the window, that's hilarious---nothing of the sort (actually I was in the US) but you know on my street they used to do that regularly? There's an old stone plaque engraved in semi-Roman dialect that basically says you'll be fined if you throw trash out your window. But I've heard of launching things from balconies for New Years--where was it? Naples?

Gracie: I know, she's kinda scary looking, depending on which one you go with!

Delina said...


avery said...

Welcome back Shelleeeeeeeey!
We missed you! How crazy it looks in Piazza Navona with the crowds but I like the pictures. I tend to think of Befana as a cross between halloween and Christmas because she is a little bit scary. My hubby got a big ol' sock of coal/carbone, made of zucchero of course. I laughed so hard but he wasn't too happy.

Cynthia Rae said...

Glad to see you back at the blog! Hope you had a wonderful holiday. Best wishes to you in the new year!

Lauren said...

La Befana looks like so much fun! It's cool for me to see pics of Piazza Navona now when I was just there a couple of months ago. Of course, it was much calmer when I was there. Glad you're back up and running with commentary about Rome and great photos!

FinnyKnits said...

NUTELLA IN GIANT DONUTS!!! Now that is a naughty treat. What do Italians make that DONT come with Nutella, anyway? Hardly any is my guess. Just another reason to love it there.

nyc/caribbean ragazza said...

Shelley welcome back! What great photos.

There was a bar near my apartment in Trastevere where I used to get a ciambella after working out. I know that makes no sense but they were soooo good.

A ciambella is more a little cakey than a Krispy Kreme (but not as dense as a Dunkin Donut). Krispy Kreme uses yeast which makes it more airy (I only know this useless fact because I saw it on food network).

Cannot wait until my next trip back.

Jane said...

So glad your back! Hope your holidays were wonderful!

Shelley - At Home in Rome said...

Thanks again, tutti! I'm glad to be back and your comments keep me going!