East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai


Night of the Befana

I have already posted in the past how, in the Italian tradition, on the night between the 5th and the 6th of January the more-or-less benevolent hag known as Befana brings little gifts to the good kids, and coal to the bad ones.
The Befana is a very old tradition, and apart from the bad press she got after being sanctioned as the Fascist Regime’s response to too-British Santa – so that in the 30s she became “Befana d’Italia” – it’s still a sort of smaller-scale Christmas in a lot of Italian families.

Traditionally, the Befana is said to bring the festivities to a close, clearing the field for the Carnival that follows.

We usually exchange gifts on this night in my house, simply because the festivity of the Befana also happened to fall on my mother’s birthday – cue to obvious jokes – and so we skipped the gift-thing on Christmas.
And now that our parents are no longer here, we’ll celebrate with a good dinner and we’ll exchange small gifts – or the promise of gifts “as soon as Amazon delivers”. Sweets, chocolate, oranges and tangerines, a watch for my brother, a few ebooks for me.

Then I will spend the night working – I have a translation that’s long overdue, and I’d also like to try and submit a two-page story to a call I received yesterday – it’s a low paying market, but it’s also a two-page, 500-words story. Why not?
It will be a fun way to take a break from the translation work.


La Befana

In the Italian tradition, la Befana is an old hag, a witch-like character that, on the night between the 5th and the 6th of January – what’s known as Twelfth Night elsewhere – flies around on her broomstick and brings small gifts to children… candies and small toys for the nice ones, coal for the naughty ones.


Harking back to pagan traditions and the Roman Saturnalia, La Befana is therefore like a low-budget, working-class or peasant Santa Claus alternative – she too fills stockings, but her gifts are usually small, cheap and of a very earthy and practical nature: candies, maybe a scarf or a pair of socks, small toys, maybe a paperback book or a comic book. Sweets retailers and supermarkets carry packs of sugar-candy “coal” for the occasion.

Back in the early 20th century, la Befana (who had been fully endorsed by the Fascist Regime, quite ironically) could fill a kid’s stockings with tangerines, chocolates or cookies. The Befana gifts are pocket-sized by default. She’s the poor-man’s Santa Claus stand in.
And despite her (involuntary) meddling with the fascists, I like her very much1.

In my family, we were in the habit of exchanging gifts on the evening of the 5th of January – simply because my mother was born on the 7th of January, and so we collapsed the two celebrations together.

Now that my mother is no longer with us, I keep making season’s gifts to my brother – and to some friends – chartering la Befana2.

Sometimes they get back at me.
This year’s twelfth night stocking was filled with five (5!) books. Continue reading