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  • Join Italy's Epiphany Party
    Get tips on how to incorporate Italian traditions for celebrating Jan. 6, when the three wise men reached baby Jesus, into your holiday
    Our Paesani

    by Francesca Di Meglio

    Italians are always looking for more vacation time. It's no wonder that their holiday season lasts one week longer than it does for those of us in the United States. They are off until January 6, which marks L'Epifania or the Epiphany, which is the celebration of when the three wise men or magi arrived to see the baby Jesus. Leave it to Italians to take things up a notch. Commemorating this encounter isn't enough. They had to make up an interesting story and bring a witch into the mix. Enter La Befana.

    La Befana or the Italian Christmas witch is Italy's answer to Santa Clause. Yes, yes, nowadays Santa Clause, known as Babbo Natale by Italians, is becoming part of Italy's tradition. But there was a time not that long ago when La Befana worked the season alone. Back when my father was growing up in Italy in the 1950s, he would put his own socks at the end of his bed (or sometimes his shoes on the floor) before going to bed on Jan. 5, and in the morning he would find tangerines, walnuts, pencils for school, and, if he was lucky, a piece of chocolate tucked inside his footwear. He never knew of Babbo Natale until he became a father to American kids.

    As the legend goes, La Befana turned down her chances for escorts to take her to meet baby Jesus. When she decided to go on her own because of a bright light that called to her, she had to make it there on her own. She gathered some toys, which belonged to her child who had died, to take to Jesus. And she flew on her broomstick. But she never found Jesus, so now she flies around distributing gifts on the night of January 5 to all the children while she keeps looking for Jesus. Much like Santa, if you're naughty, you get coal instead of gifts.

    Obviously, the Italians must think Jesus is somewhere in their neck of the woods since La Befana, unlike Babbo Natale, only brings gifts to Italian kids as she keeps up her search. She never veers off into other parts of Europe or the United States. Of course, doesn't the world revolve around Italy?

    If the world revolves around Italy, Italy revolves around food. Certainly, a celebration, especially one as grand as L'Epifania, comes with a special menu. Incorporating some special Italian foods, such as an antipasto plate of prosciutto, fresh mozzarella, and marinated vegetables, crostini, pappardelle for the primo, filet mignon for secondo, and panettone for dessert, on Jan. 6 could help you feel more Italian. After all, these are some of the typical dishes you might find on the Epifania table.

    You could dress up like La Befana for the kids and dole out little gifts. Although images of La Befana show her having both black and gray hair, the rest of her look is pretty consistent. Most depict her as having a long, crooked nose (some have a wart on it), broken shoes, and a patched dress. She also wears a kerchief on her head and a sack on her back (filled with toys). She travels by broom, so you'll have to bring one with you. My husband and one of my cousins have done this in Italy before. You don't have to be a woman to play the part. But you do have to dress like one. You might still have witch accessories from Halloween. Dig them out for Christmas.

    To really play the part of La Befana, you have to give out gifts. Your local dollar store probably has some affordable presents. Or you could opt to give the kiddies tangerines and walnuts, which are healthy treats to boot, and pay homage to the La Befana of my father's era. Although we would just recognize Epifania with a special meal when I was growing up, my Babbo Natale would put those tangerines and nuts in our stockings on Christmas morning as a reminder of La Befana. The bonus: Having La Befana team up with Babbo Natale is truly in the spirit of the holiday season.

    So, make like an Italian and extend the holiday season to Jan. 6, L'Epifania. Just make sure the witch is on your guest list.

    Di Meglio is the Guide to Newlyweds for, and you can get more information on her life and work at the Two Worlds Web site.

    Article Published 12/5/2010


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