Auguri and the Befana


Auguri‘ is Italian, roughly meaning good wishes. It’s as multi-purposed a word as ‘Ciao’ and Italians can’t say it enough at this time of year.  Auguri derives from the ancient Etruscan and Roman practice of (guess?) augury which was studying the patterns of birds to predict whether a course of action (like declaring war) would be successful.

In the world’s first public museum (Gallerie Borghese, 1734), I saw this unusual ancient Roman marble statue of an old woman which got me thinking about how rare it is that we celebrate… old women.

January 6 is an Italian national holiday: the epiphany/befana.  On the night of 5th, la Befana (roughly translated to Christmas Witch) comes to bring treats for children. The 6th has always been special to me because it’s my dad’s birthday. Ever since I donated my liver to him in 2011, his birthdays are even more meangingful (Happy Birthday Dad!)  For Christians the world over, the twelfth day of Chritmas (12 Drummers drumming) is known as the epiphany and when the 3 Kings/Wise men came. The Befana was apparently invited to Jesus’ birth by the Kings. Although she didn’t make it, her legend is evoked on this day; she brings presents to children in the night and can give a wicked good sweep of the house while she’s at it. Throughout Europe, gift-bearing magical beings bring presents to children on the night of the 5th of January.

A couple weeks ago walking about Rome near San Giovanni in Laterano (oldest Church), Santa Claus came across our paths. Not a guy wearing a cheap costume and polyester beard but a normally-dressed man with red cheeks, bushy white beard and mustache – must not forget the twinkle in his eyes. My head swivelled around as I nudged my daughters who similarly started and stared in delight. Mr Claus smiled back, obviously used to such attention – especially in December A little part of me thought “What if he really *is* Santa?” before I reminded myself that despite my childhood beliefs (and a desire to believe in a jolly old soul who indulges  children’s toy fantasies)… Santa Claus in his present incarnation is a marketing invention conceived of by Coca Cola.

The Italian Befana is a traditon pehaps linked to a pagan goddess and subsequently amalgamated into a Christian tradition. If my North American family were to be in Italy right now, they would be forgiven for thinking that the Italians are trying to recycle Halloween treats with ugly witches on broomsticks at every turn. The witches have warts, wiry grey hair, Harry Potter broomsticks and are bundled in a scarf and plain clothes.

Thinking about the Befana, I started to imagine myself as an Italian child. Maybe my inner infantile Italian incarnation would be entranced by old ladies with homely nasal protuberances.  Would any of my Italian readers stare at old ladies – especially as kids- wondering if they were the *real* Befana?

What a lovely way to grow up, seeing hardy, hearty, non-fashionable grannies with warts and double chins  as magical creatures bringing candies for the good and coal for the naughty. (Actually all the kids get coal since none can be good all the time.  Worry not my eco warrior friends- the coal stays in the ground. Modern day children of Italy receive lumps of  black candy made of non GMO sugar).   

For this year, I aspire to learn more of powerful women, both real and imaginary.  May this year bring important changes via powerful and real men and women.  May our internal drummers pound away, may we dance  wildly to righteous beats, may we listen to our inner children, and harness our collective magic!


2 thoughts on “Auguri and the Befana

  1. Teresa Lynne

    Thank you as always for an interesting, uplifting, encouraging post. And for sharing Italy with us. Ciao bella!


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