La Befana, courtesy of JD Adams
After my last couple columns talking about Christmas, I had an offline conversation with another Italian gal about a curious custom in Italy to celebrate the Epiphany on January 6, 12 days after Christmas. As she explained, first La Befana was a witch, just giving children sweet coal if they were naughty and toys and treats if they were good. But then it was taken over by the Christians, and so La Befana, the good witch, became a part of Christ's Epiphany story.
(Sweet coal from Flagranta delicia, a unique Epihany treat for the naughty. Gluten free naturally, here's her recipe.)
As such things go, there became a whole event around the introduction of La Befana to the story. She was supposed to be part of the 3 wise men group. She was too busy doing her housework to go, so she told them she would catch them later with the new infant Christ and steered them in the direction to go. Only they went back another way, and they missed her. D'oh! So she spreads her gifts and sweets around to good children (and sweet coal to the bad), hoping to find the Christ child she missed seeing the first time. What I love about this story is that it embodies what the world thought the Italian woman was like. Hardworking. Bossy in a way only a Nonna could be. Generous to a fault. And spreading around tons and tons of sweets!
Invariably at this point when I start talking about this people at the table go off about one of three things:
1. "You hate Christians, don't you?" No, I just happen to be honest about my family's religious choice. In fact, I rather think the early church leaders were models of efficiency - why not take advantage of already planned festivities and use them to further the goals of the religion?
2. "Why the heck do we need another holiday?" and 3. "Isn't Christmas enough? I don't understand".Well, actually, there's really a smart reasoning to the pair of holidays...
What the problem is that with recycling holidays and adding local legends into them is that invariably, some parts of the tale get mish moshed around. Where most nativity sets include the three wise men, the actuality was that the three wise men didn't arrive until the twelfth night, where Christ was proclaimed him as the son of God. So you can see where people get confused - there really is two separate holidays, one the birth of Christ and the second his proclamation, called the Epiphany. Whether you choose to celebrate them or not, I think they are actually quite effective as a pair, and here's why:
(a very close relative to Pinza Veneta, from Wikipedia)
In Italy, as I've mentioned, there's the feast of the seven fishes on Christmas, with lots of Christmas sweets. Nougat. Candied fruits. Pandoro. Panettone. Etc. Etc. Etc. It can quite frankly be overwhelming and there can be oodles of food leftover. In the spirit of La Befana, the efficient cleaning housewitch, Epiphany is the time to reuse those leftovers and make them into something new. Pinza Veneta is a good example of that. Old bread lying around? Extra candied fruit? Ground too much corn meal for polenta? Throw that puppy together and make it a sweet new dessert so the kiddos don't get tired of eating it. You can make it with regular bread and flour and even throw some grappa in there for good measure (here's the recipe, scroll down for the English version) but you can also just as easily make this a gluten free delicacy. Alessia Piva's gluten free version is in Italian but if you can't read in the Italian, it translates very well with Google Translate (surprisingly!). So you see - you can overindulge in baking at Christmas, and have a neat holiday with which one can clean up the larder. And the cool part about Epiphany? People go from house to house, helping you clean up your leftovers! It's like an impromptu progressive dinner, without all the organizational pains.
Now, my family lived hundreds of miles away from my Italian grandfather, so I don't know for sure if they ever celebrated this or not (I really need to talk to my aunts and father about that!). But I like to think that my grandfather would totally approve of this holiday, because he was a "waste not, want not" kind of guy. Extra pie filling? Make fruit pancakes the next day. Random mechanical gadget? Weld it to a base and we have a rotating Christmas tree stand. My grandparents' garage was a garden of interesting mechanical and wooden things that my brother and I would sneak into during the summer to find interesting things to play with (and some things that we probably shouldn't have, like Jarts, but we survived, all limbs intact). My sort-of-Irish grandmother loved Christmas and kept it up until mid-January, so they just as easily could have had a nice dinner with the nativity sets and Christmas lights.
Isn't that a great picture? That's my grandparents from 26 December 1984, in the Lake Orion Review. You can read the full article on page 24 of the edition in iDigOrion, which is like, the best thing ever for Lake Orion researchers! In fact, their Christmas display got even larger after that, with dozens of people visiting and my grandfather starting to put up Christmas decorations before Thanksgiving.