I should start by wishing all of you Buon Anno (Happy New Year), since this is my first post in 2008. We had two intense weeks between December 23 and January 6. We spent Christmas in the Bay Area, where we still live part of the time, then we visited my father-in-law and his wife, and finally we spent a week scuba diving with friends. We did not stay up until midnight on December 31, but we celebrated Capodanno (New Year's Day) in a nice way, immersed in nature and in the company of good friends.
I was planning to talk about la Befana which is celebrated on January 6. It was a holiday when I was a kid, then it was no longer a holiday for a few years (it was decided that the Italian calendar had too many holidays, so some of them were canceled) and finally it was reinstated. The actual religious holiday is called Epifania (Epiphany). If you have never heard of la Befana, and therefore don't know what she looks like, on this page you can see a couple of photos of a modern incarnation of her on a site dedicated to la Befana and to a celebration that occurs every year in a village in central Italy. Then come back here for more.
"La Befana vien di notte con le scarpe tutte rotte" is the beginning of a rhyme about la Befana that has many different variations in terms of how it proceeds. I actually remember only as much as I wrote, which in English reads la Befana comes at night with her shoes all tattered-and-torn. Children expects la Befana to fill their stockings with candies and chocolates if they have been good during the preceding year, and with lumps of coal if they have been not so good. I always found a piece of coal in my stocking, which was black, hard, made of sugar and not particularly tasty. Every year, my father would tell me that the prized items in his stocking were mandarins and oranges, not candies and chocolates.
My father used to recite another rhyme about this day. The first part was in Italian: Pasqua Epifania tutte le feste porta via (Epiphany carries away all the holidays). In fact, the day after la Befana we would usually dismantle the Christmas tree and put away all the decorations. The second part was in the dialect spoken in his village and my writing is an approximation of his pronunciation: poi revè Sant'Antognetto e ne reporta 'n saccoccetto (then Saint Anthony arrives carrying a small pocketful of them). The feast of Saint Anthony Abbot is celebrated on January 17. What does the saint have to do with a small bagful of holidays? To get the answer you will have to wait until the right day.
Every year my favorite square in Rome, Piazza Navona, hosts the Fiera della Befana, a colorful fair that I remember visiting when I was a child and was already in love with that elegant urban space. I no longer leave my stocking out on the eve of la Befana, but I am still attached to the old lady that makes children happy (hence the stylized smiley face on the sand, an image taken recently at Point of Sand, Little Cayman island).