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 about.com’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?
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!"
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.