27 June, 2006

33. La Befana

The early Christian churches hijacked the midwinter festivals of earlier religions and traditions – like various pagan winter solstice feasts, and the Jewish Hannukkah or Festival of Lights – and turned them into the celebration of the birth of Christ. The early eastern church fixed the date of this birth on January 6th, the western church settled on December 25th. Universally, the latter date is now known as Christmas Day, and the former date is called the feast of 'Epiphany', symbolizing the revelation of God in human form and better associated with the traditional visit of the Magi or three Wise Men.

Venice, torn as it was for so long between the eastern and western branches of the Christian religion, compromises by celebrating both dates. Children in the Veneto (and in some other parts of Italy, too) traditionally get a second stocking full of candy/lollies/sweets (depending on which part of the world you were in when you learned English) on January 6. This time, instead of being delivered by Santa Claus, the benefactor is 'La Befana', an old witch. La Befana also knows if you have been good or bad, and if you have been bad gives you cinders from her hearth instead of confectionery – these days of course, the cinders are coal-shaped lumps of sugar or biscuits made with black food dye rather than the real thing.

La Befana is also an excuse to hold a regatta on the Grand Canal. For most of January 6, specially built skiffs and racing gondolas push chaotically up and down the main reaches of the Canal around the Rialto, powered by single rowers, or by teams of two, three, four, or six, depending on the size and type of boat.

At this regatta, many of the boats – like the one pictured – are rowed by La Befana herself, gondoliers dressed up as the old crone, complete with broomstick. In some of the novelty races, the boats are rowed by teams of witches supposedly using broomsticks instead of oars, but in fact using oars wrapped in twigs to look like broomsticks. Oh well, I suppose it's an excuse for a little harmless cross-dressing.

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