Buon Capodanno! Happy New Year! Literally translated it means happy “head of the year”. A continuum of holiday merriment that has been underway for weeks as Italians prepare for the Christmas season. A holiday feast of food and drink that leads us into a New Year with symbolic ingredients like coin-shaped lentils (for luck) and cotechino and zampone (stuffed pigs’ trotters) to represent the bags to hold the incoming money.
But such prosperity and good fortune don’t come easily and after the arrival of La Befana the Christmas Witch on January 6th Italians, like most of us, are faced with a way to make the New Year better. It always helps to have a good head “capo” on your shoulders and to quote someone who has seen her share of ups and downs “everyone has highs and lows they have to learn from, but every morning I start off with a good head on my shoulders, saying to myself, ‘It’s going to be a good day! ‘ OK Lindsay Lohan – it’s going to be a good New Year.
Christmas gift giving in Italy doesn’t involve a cheery fat fellow in a red fur trimmed suit and it doesn’t necessarily happen on December 25th. The holiday season in Italy extends well into the New Year when La Befana, the Christmas Witch,visits Italian children on the eve of January 6th. La Befana arrives on the eve of the Epiphany, to fill children’s stockings with candy and presents if they are good or a lump of coal (black rock candy) if they are bad. Although in Italy Santa is a little old lady wearing a black shawl traveling by broomstick rather than a sleigh, La Befana does fly down the chimney covered with ashes and soot with a bundle of toys flung on her back.
In fact the tradition of La Befana is all about gift giving with vestiges of ancient manners and customs dating to pre-Christian folklore when the Roman goddess Strenia brought gifts of figs, dates, and honey to celebrate the beginning of a new year. In the Christian version, the Three Wise Men stopped to ask La Befana for directions to Bethlehem and invited her to join them on their journey to find the Christ Child. She refused, saying she had too much work to do. Regretting her decision La Befana began searching for the Wise Men but could not find them or the Christmas stable. Now, each year she looks for the Christ Child leaving sweets at every house with children to remember the Three Wise Men who brought gifts to baby Jesus.