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Rome Notes: A Bewitching Tradition; Macho Monks

Where La Befana Bumps Santa Aside

By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, JAN. 7, 2005 (Zenit) - Christmas brought crèches, big, fancy or small,
And mighty green fir trees amazingly tall.

New Year's changed Rome to a city of light.
Feting with fireworks all through the night.

Now we prepare for the season's last pitch,
As Romans await the old Christmas witch ...

What? A Christmas witch, you ask? While unfamiliar to most people outside of Europe, the ugly old woman bearing gifts has been a staple of Italian Christmases for centuries.

Her name, "la Befana," is a corruption of the Greek word "epiphaneia" which means manifestation and is the origin of Epiphany, or the feast of the Magi, on Jan 6.

According to legend, when the Wise Men were looking for the newborn Christ Child, they came across an old woman and told her they were going to offer gifts to the King of Kings. The old woman, too engrossed in cleaning and tending to her own home, declined the invitation to join them.

Shortly thereafter she realized her mistake, but the Magi were already gone. She gathered up food and gifts and went off in search of the child. She has been searching ever since.

Italian children eagerly await the night of Jan. 5, when the Befana flies over their houses on her broomstick dispensing candy and toys to good children and charcoal to the naughty ones. To ensure her arrival, they leave a little wine as well as an orange out for her.

The Befana represents an interesting interplay between pagan and Christian traditions in Italy as elements of her story have their antecedents in folklore while her very name belies her Christian roots.

The tradition of the old woman bearing gifts can be traced to the 13th century where celebrations for her arrival included dances, bonfires and songs. These festivities probably stem from the ancient tradition of gift-giving among Christians on Jan. 6 in commemoration of the Magi. The Befana was "officially" given her name during the Renaissance, through the rhymes of Tuscan poet Agnolo Firenzuola.

During the pagan era, the winter solstice was a time of many feasts linked to agriculture. The most important honored Saturn, god of agriculture. The Befana's preference for both giving and receiving foodstuffs seems to be linked to these rites concerned with the fertility of the land.

In the third century, Emperor Aurelian proclaimed a festival of the sun from Dec. 25 to Jan. 6, and on the 12th night, a trunk of an oak tree was burned all night to obtain charcoal from which the auspices for next year's crops were read.

New Year's celebrations in Italian folklore included burning a straw effigy of an old woman, symbolic of the ending of the old year and the beginning of the new. Furthermore, throughout Europe, Twelfth Night was considered the most magical night of the year, as Shakespeare knew quite well.

In postwar Italy, the Befana, already laden with traditions and meanings took on a new guise -- the rival of Santa. Italians identified Santa Claus -- with his Coca-Cola colors and his jolly, round belly -- with the affluent, commercial United States, while the Befana became leaner and her ragged clothing more obviously patched, representing poorer, war-torn Italy.

Today, the many-faceted nature of the Befana is lost on most Italians who now see her as an opportunity to receive the gifts they didn't get on Christmas Day. This week, Romans flock to Piazza Navona where the Bernini sculptures are obscured by stall after stall selling broom-wielding Befana dolls in every shape and size, copious stockings for the Befana's booty and, of course, every candy imaginable including sugar charcoal.

The only things missing are the Magi. Amid the numerous stands and wares, one is hard-pressed to find many figurines of the Wise Men to add to the crèche on Epiphany. Perhaps on her journeys, the Befana will rediscover her Christian origins and help the Magi find their way back into the hearts of Italian children.

* * *


"Monks at Arms," a new exhibit in Rome, captured the city's imagination this season. Many sharpened their wits dubbing the show with titles such as "macho monks" or "militant monasteries," names that emphasize what appears as a paradox in modern society, the religious brother who was also a trained warrior.

This exhibit brings together about 150 artifacts from all over the world pertaining to the religious military orders of the Knights Templar, the Knights of St. John, Jerusalem, Rhodes and Malta, and the Teutonic Knights as well as the Knights of St. Stephen. Most of these orders were formed around the 12th century, during the time of the Crusades.

Some of these communities started as hospices, ...

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