On a Broomstick with La Befana.

The Befana comes at night, With her shoes all tattered and torn, She comes dressed in the Roman way, Long Live the Befana.”

These lines sound so much better in Italian (see below) and it’s one poem that all children learn by rote and then recall as adults. La Befana is one of the most loved figures associated with Italian Christmas: the celebration is still popular throughout Italy. It’s nice to see photos of Italian women of a certain age getting into the spirit of Befana, dressing up as witches, while family groups attend the many winter feste and sagre dedicated to La Befana on the evening of January 5, 12 days after Christmas day.

Orion and the Seven Sisters. Photo by my brother Michael, whose celestial photos can be found at https://regionalcognisance.wordpress.com/.

For those who don’t know the story, the legend of La Befana is associated with the Epiphany which occurs 12 days after Christmas. Befana was an old woman who was asked to accompany the Three Wise Men on their journey to bring gifts to the new-born baby Jesus. She declined, stating she was too busy with her housework. Later, Befana had a change of heart, and went in search of the three astrologers and the new born Jesus. That night she wasn’t able to find them, so to this day, La Befana goes out searching for the little baby on the night of the Epiphany, on January 5-6. Befana is a corruption of the Italian word of epifania, and is derived from the Greek, επιφάνεια, meaning appearance or manifestation. She is depicted as a kindly old witch wearing ragged clothes and riding a broomstick. She enters the house via the chimney and brings a sack of gifts for the children, sweet things for the good children and a lump of carbon or garlic for the naughty ones. See my earlier posts about Befana, here, here and  here.

Image courtesy of my brother Michael at https://regionalcognisance.wordpress.com/.

But there’s still something odd about the Christian aspects of this legend. Why a witch and why is she flying on a broomstick above Italian villages and cities? As it turns out, there are many pagan and folkloric threads to the story, each one providing more clues. Like many Christian stories, this one has been appropriated from ancient times and tacked on to a Christian legend about the birth of Jesus.

Moon and Tree. Courtesy M Robinson at Mick’s Cogs

‘The origin of the Befana is probably connected to a set of pagan propitiatory rites, dating back to the X-VI century BC, and is linked to seasonal cycles, to agriculture, and is related to the harvest of the past year, now ready to be reborn as a the new year’.Âą

In the Roman era, the twelfth night after winter solstice symbolised the death and rebirth of nature, and was celebrated. They believed that the twelve nights after solstice represented the twelve months of the Roman calendar: female figures flew over the cultivated fields to promote the fertility of future crops, hence the legend of a “flying” figure. According to some, this female figure was first identified as Diana, the lunar goddess linked to game and hunting as well as to vegetation and the moon. Befana is also linked to minor deities such as Satìa and Abundìa, symbols of satiety and abundance. There may also be an association with an ancient Roman winter festival in honor of Strenia ¹, the goddess of New Year, a time when gifts were exchanged. (the word strenna meaning gifts is derived from this).

Other precursors include Holda and Perchta, nocturnal witches of Nordic mythology, and in the Veneto region, Erodiade. It is customary in these areas to burn an effigy of La Befana. Good, evil, mother, witch, goddess, housewife, grandmother, hag, crone, the modern, often cartoonised character of Befana, has emerged from a rich store of pagan and Italian folklore. In a sense, the Christian element is just one minor thread.

Seen in Trastevere, Roma, November 2017. The real Befana?

As for La Befana who comes dressed as a witch in the Roman style, historians specialising in Italian witchcraft and folkloric traditions have more to say. A story perhaps for next year’s post on this topic?

La Befana nell’orto d’abbondanza. Madre, nonna, dea, strega, casalinga, vecchia, contadina, amica, cuoca.

There are at least 12 versions of this little Italian poem, but this is the one I learnt many years ago. See opening paragraph above for the English translation.

La Befana vien di notte
con le scarpe tutte rotte
col vestito alla romana:
Viva viva la Befana!  

Âąhttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strenua

 

 

 

 

Chasing Stars with a Cake for La Befana

I’m not a religious person but am very partial to a good legend. The Epiphany, which falls on January 6th each year, is one of those. I usually celebrate the day with an exotic cake- something a little Middle Eastern, conjuring gold, frankincense and myrrh. The Epiphany marks the day when the Three Wise Men, Magi or Kings, found Jesus in Bethlehem after following a star for 12 days. All three scholars, from Babylonia, Persia and India, would have paid particular attention to the stars, each having an international reputation for astrology.  What did they talk about along the way and what did they eat?

Orion and the Seven Sisters. Photo by my brother Michael, whose photos can be found at https://regionalcognisance.wordpress.com/.
Orion. Photo courtesy of my brother Michael, who also likes to hunt stars. His photos can be found at https://regionalcognisance.wordpress.com/.

In Italy, the Epiphany is also marked by a visit from La Befana the night before. A benign old witch, she visits on a broomstick, bringing gifts to children in her sack- carbone or garlic to those who have been naughty, and caramelle or fruit to those who have been good, or a little of both. The family typically puts out a glass of wine and a small tasty treat for La Befana. This is an equally important part of the Christmas celebration, and in the past, before the commercialisation of Christmas, gifts were given on January 6th. Legend has it that La Befana was asked to accompany the Three Wise Men on their journey but was too busy with housework and so missed out. To this day, she rides about on the night of January 5th looking for the little baby.

Viva, Viva La Befana
Viva, Viva La Befana.

I have made a banana cake to mark the day, using Stephanie Alexander’s recipe which always works out nicely, adding extra spice and some chopped cedro or frutta glassata leftover from the Panforte that I didn’t have time to make for Christmas (La Befana and I have a lot in common). The exotic part comes in the icing, which is laced with ground cardamom and sprinkled with chopped pistachio and a little more chopped cedro. The recipe comes from Selma, another shining star: her original cake and icing recipe can be found here.

Note. I halved Selma’s original, as I only had one larger cake to cover. I kept the quantity of coconut powder and milk and also used the ground seeds from more cardamom pods than listed, because I love that spice. Her icing recipe can be adapted to use on any cake.

Selma’s Coconut Cream Cheese and Cardamom Icing

    • 3 Tbsp coconut powder
    • 1-2 Tbsp warm milk
    • 100 g cream cheese
    • 125g mascarpone cheese
    • 3-4 Tbsp icing sugar
    •  ground seeds from 4 or more cardamom pods
    • chopped pistachios (optional)
    • edible dried rose petals (optional)
    • finely chopped cedro or glacĂ© orange rind (optional)

While your banana cake is baking, make the icing: stir the coconut powder into warm milk until smooth. In a medium-sized bowl, mix together the cream cheese and the mascarpone with a rubber spatula then add the coconut mixture and stir in. Sift in the icing sugar, mixing well and taste after you have added half the sugar – it may be sweet enough. Stir in the cardamom powder and set aside in the fridge. When the loaves are cold, spread with the icing and top with the chopped pistachios and rose petals if using them.

Selma's exotic icing.
Selma’s exotic icing.

As you can see, I added chopped glacé orange rind and pistachios. The iced cake stores well in a covered container in the fridge.

Notes and links

  • My earlier epiphany post and recipe for Almond and Honey Spice Cake from 2014 can be found here and includes the words to the famous poem about La Befana, which all Italian children learn, as do most young students of Italian in Australia.
  • Stephanie Alexander, The Cook’s Companion, 1996, p77
  • Cedro and other glacĂ© fruits are available at The Royal Nut Company, Brunswick 3056. They have a great range.
  •  Selma’s beautiful blog, go to https://selmastable.wordpress.com/

And now for the best bit

This lovely animation by Arseny Lapin and music by Aquarium also reminds me of the Epiphany. One of my young Viking visitors adores it and asks for it often. He sings along in his perfect pitch soprano voice, imagining all sorts of things that a fish might whisper in a lady’s ear. If you like it too, play it to a young visitor and see what happens.

© Almost Italian, 2016. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material, including photographs without express and written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to http//almostitalian.wordpress.com with appropriate direction to the original content.