By Joe Cannavo
Growing up in an immigrant home in the ’50s and ’60s, I recall that Santa Claus never appeared in public until the Thanksgiving Day Parade. And the day after Epiphany on Jan. 7, the tree and manger came down. The holidays were over! Sadly, in recent years the over-commercialization of Christmas in the United States has Santa getting into town before the first trick-or-treater hits the street on Halloween, and it’s not unusual these days to see a Christmas tree on the curb the morning of Dec. 26.
So why bring a Christmas topic up in January? The answer is simple. Biblically and traditionally in many countries and cultures, Italy among them, the season, the celebration, and the spirit of Christmas all extend into January with two major holidays celebrated with the reverence associated with the season. One of them of course being New Year’s Day.
Many Italians continue to hold on to traditional customs, which promise to bring wealth and banish bad luck. On Dec. 27 shops reopen and their windows become awash with red undergarments; both men and women wear red underwear on New Year’s Eve to bring luck in the coming year; red is also the color of fertility and those hoping to conceive in the following year also wear red. Dinner is also steeped in tradition, with the New Year dinner historically being zampone e lenticchie, which are pig trotters and lentils, with many supermarkets selling pre-packed trotters from mid-November. A variation on this, and more popular with the younger generation, is cotechino e lenticchie, a sausage that contains the meat of the trotter. Italian folklore suggests that eating sausage before midnight is a good omen for the New Year; sausage made with pig’s trotters contains a high fat content and this symbolizes abundance and, when eaten alongside the lentils, which are believed to bring good luck and prosperity, the diner’s financial forecast for the forthcoming year is predicted to be better than the previous. The dinner is finished off with dried fruit and grapes. It is said to take great willpower to conserve some grapes from the harvest until New Year’s Eve. This indicates that everyone at the table will be wise and frugal with their newfound wealth. To banish previous bad luck, particularly in southern Italy, there’s an attitude of out with the old and in with the new; however, this practice can be rather extreme, as old pots and pans, clothes or any old and unwanted items are thrown from upstairs windows. The act is seen to symbolize letting go of unhappiness in preparation for the future. It’s wise for those taking a New Year’s Eve stroll on New Year’s Eve in the south, to borrow a crash helmet to avoid injury from a cascading pot or skillet. Similarly, in parts of northern Italy, it’s customary to banish malignant auras by smashing crockery outside the front of your house. Anyone who has ever attended an Italian festival here or fortunate enough to have attended one in Italy knows that Italians love fireworks! The summer night skies are ablaze with them as almost every town and village has dramatic displays at the conclusion of their festa, and New Year’s Eve is no different, so, like almost every other country, the end of one year and beginning of another is celebrated with a riot of bangs and colors, while not losing sight of its connection to Christmas and an obligation to attend mass to celebrate Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God.
Then on Jan. 6 comes Epiphany, a public holiday in Italy commonly celebrated in the Catholic Church and cherished throughout the country. This day marks the day the three Wise Men bearing gifts arrived at Jesus’ manger. Thus, in many Italian families it is the holiday season’s principal day for exchanging gifts and for their children a more celebrated holiday for than even Christmas, as the little ones await the arrival of la Befana.
La Befana is an important part of the Christmas festivities in Italy and is one of Italy’s oldest and most celebrated legends. Each year on Epiphany Italian children awaken to see if la Befana visited to their house.
According to the legend, the three Wise Men were searching for the Christ child when they decided to stop and ask for directions.
Upon knocking on the door of a small house, an old woman holding a broom opened the door slightly to see who was there. Standing at her doorstep were three colorfully dressed men who were in need of directions to find the Christ child. The old woman didn’t know who they were looking for, and could not provide them with directions. Prior to the three men leaving they asked the old woman to join them on their journey.
The old woman declined, saying she had too much housework to do. However, after they left she felt as though she had made a mistake and tried to catch up with the men. After hours of searching she could not find them. Thinking of the missed opportunity, the old woman stopped every child to give them a small treat in hopes that one was the Christ child. Each year on the eve of the Epiphany she sets out looking for the baby Jesus. She stops at each child’s house to leave those who were good treats and those who were bad a lump of coal. Sound familiar?
To demonstrate the extent to which Italians go to keep the holidays fun and vibrant here are a short list of Italy’s prevalent January events that wind down the holidays in Italy.
The town of Urbania, in Le Marche region, holds a festival for la Befana from Jan. 2-6. Children can meet her in La Casa della Befana. This is one of the biggest celebrations for la Befana in Italy.
In Vatican City, following another Epiphany tradition, hundreds of people in medieval costumes parade along the wide avenue leading up to the Vatican, carrying symbolic gifts for the Pope. The Pope says a morning Mass in St Peter’s Basilica to commemorate the visit of the Wise Men bearing gifts for Jesus.
Florence’s historical procession, Calvacata dei Magi, usually starts from Pitti Palace in the early afternoon and going across the river to the Duomo. Flag throwers perform in Piazza della Signoria.
Milan holds an Epiphany Parade of the Three Kings from the Duomo to the church of Sant’Eustorgio.
Rivisondoli, in the Abruzzo region has a reenactment of the arrival of the three kings on Jan. 5 with hundreds of costumed participants.
Many towns and villages in Italy have similar processions, although not as elaborate, ending with a living nativity scene, presepe vivente, where costumed people act out the parts of the nativity. Living nativities, presepi viventi, are often presented Dec. 24-26 and repeated for Epiphany.
Churches in cities and larger towns often hold special concerts, usually free.
All which leads to an old Italian proverb L’Epifania tutte le feste porta via — “Epiphany whisks the holidays away.” IAH
(Editor’s note: The public holiday and the day the 2017 Epiphany events take place in Italy will be Friday, Jan. 6. However this year the Roman Catholic Church has designated Sunday, Jan. 8, as the day the Church will celebrate Mass in honor of the Epiphany.)