Twelve Days Is Not Enough
A very Happy Epiphany/Three Kings/Twelfth Night! In English-speaking (and singing) tradition, this is the day when your True Love’s condo is condemned by the local health authority after repeated complaints from neighbors about the unrelenting noise and noxious animal smells. Even that nice old couple that lives below her must’ve reached the end of their rope when you dropped off the Twelve Drummers in a panel van last night. I mean, the Eleven Lords from the local dance company really would’ve been the last straw for most people. Don’t even get me started on what comes out the south end of Six Geese, egg-laying or otherwise. I hope you saved receipts on those Five Gold Rings, because after today, I’m guessing the engagement is off.
In most of America, we’ve never quite known what to make of the Epiphany. It’s mostly a day that makes us go, “Huh. Maybe we ought to take down that dried-out tree, seeing as how it’s a serious fire hazard.” Sure, there are exceptions. It’s a thing in most Latino families—El Día de los Reye—as well as other families with various Mediterranean-ish roots.
Laissez les Bontemps Roulez
And of course, most important of all to someone like me who squandered several years of his wasted youth down Loozeeanna way in Nyah’luns, the Epiphany is the first day of Mardi Gras Season!!! Laissez les bontemps roulez, cher! Which roughly translated means, “Don’t drink and drive, knucklehead.” But my French is a little rusty.
Let me state something that should be blindingly obvious to everyone. Our entire nation would benefit greatly from adopting the institution of Mardi Gras Season. It makes that whole post-holiday let-down, seasonal affect disorder, nasty grey winter weather thing soooo much more bearable. Mostly by giving you an excuse to hit the sauce so you’re half in the bag for several weeks. But that’s just a minor detail.
Having grown up in its environs and Survived Many Midwest Winters, let me assure you that Chicago really, really needs a Mardi Gras season. This year, due to the lateness of Easter, Mardi Gras season will last a near-miraculous FIFTY-SEVEN days. Please take note, Chicagoans. Seriously, for your mental health. So much more fun than overeating brats and pining for opening day at Wrigley. [Editor’s Note: In 20221, Mardi Gras season will be a paltry 42 days, so better get drinking, Chicago.]
My second close encounter with the Feast of the Epiphany—also the one I actually remember because I’d given up alcohol by then—was when we moved to Italy in 1994.
The Italians really know how to do Epiphany, which in Italian is known by the phonetically courteous cognate l’Epifania. And the salient feature of the (also phonetically courteous) festa dell’Epifania is that eminent personage known as Befana.
Since the Second World War, Santa Claus has made inroads into Italian culture. And into the avaricious little ids of Italian children. He’s known by the (phonetically more dubious) moniker Babbo Natale. This is literally translated “Dad Christmas,” so he’s more of a British old Father Christmas than an American hyper-commercialized Santa.
Befana is Bona Fide
However, Babbo Natale is, by Italian-Roman-Etruscan time standards, is a vulgar interloping holiday parvenu. It’s Befana whose name goes above the title for Christmas season in Italy, let me assure you.
“Who is this Befana of whom you speak?” I hear you say. Because there’s an app for that. Only kidding, I can’t access your laptop’s microphone through my blog page. (Or can I???)
In short, Befana is a witch. Yep, you heard me. (Because that app is two-way. Joking. Or am I?) The most beloved Christmastide mythical person for Italian children… is a witch. Yikes, right? I should explain that Befana is technically a (phonetically indifferent) strega. This word is usually and lazily translated as “witch,” but it’s really a folk healer-fortune teller-herbalist-midwife kind of thing going on. And the Italians don’t have a tradition of nasty evil witches like the Germans. So, if we must, a strega is a Good Witch. Like Glenda.
How, you may well ask, did a witch of any flavor become associated with Christmas, as Befana has been since the 13th century? The story goes something like this. The Three Wise Men, as we know, went searching for the Christ Child by following a star—which in pre-Google-Maps days must have been quite a land navigation challenge for them.
[Editor’s Note: We just experienced the 2020 reappearance of the Start of Bethlehem–a conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter. If you missed it, don’t despair. It’ll be back in <Googles ‘astronomical almanac’> about 800 years. OK, you can despair.]
Once the Three Above-Average Males finally decided to get directions—with THREE men it must have taken weeks of arguing—The Wise Guys stopped to ask Befana, a woman known throughout her village as a most fastidious housekeeper, if she knew where they could find the Baby Jesus. She didn’t, but since her house was like Expedia 5-star clean, they spent the night.
Next morning, The Smart Dudes invited Befana to accompany them on their quest to find the Savior, but she demurred on account of all the additional housework necessitated by hosting three high-maintenance Magi who had travelled afar and left a lot of road dirt all over her clean floors. This factoid is why Befana is always depicted carrying a broom, upon which she is able to fly. Think it a low-budget substitute for Santa’s sleigh and reindeer.
Befana soon regrets her decision and sets off on her own to find the Child, but alas fails. She therefore wanders the Earth on the eve of each Epiphany leaving presents and sweets for all the good boys and girls who have put their shoes out in anticipation of having them filled with Befana swag. As in the Santa Claus tradition, bad boys and girls get their shoes filled with carbone (coal), garlic, and/or onions. But with the Italians being Very Soft-Hearted About Children, stores in Italy sell black rock carbone candy so even erstwhile bad bambini still get sweets.
The Christmastide Double Dip
Every village and neighborhood in Italy has an older lady who dresses up as Befana with her broom and makes an appearance in the piazza on l’Epifania. There are also regional variations. We lived in the foothills of the Italian Alps where the Befana tradition includes a bonfire. Everyone gathers by the fire in the piazza, around which Befana greets and sweeps—she really is OCD about cleaning—to watch which way the smoke will blow. If toward the mountains, it signifies health and wealth for the New Year. Away from the mountains… not so much. Not that I ever discerned any noticeable difference from year to year in our village, regardless of smoke or windage.
Our kids were young enough to be very stoked about Befana. Getting bonus gifts on the Epiphany necessitated nothing more than my wife, Kay-Kay, withholding one or two we would’ve given them on Christmas anyway. But don’t tell my adult son Scooter, who I’m certain believes to this day that he pulled a fast one by double-dipping on presents. I traumatized him enough in his youth by denying him access to “Beavis and Butthead.”
In Other Christmastides…
The assorted Orthodox and Coptic churches mark the Epiphany two weeks later—that whole Julian calendar thing—as a celebration of the baptism of Jesus. A Greek-American law school friend of mine once told me this involves tossing a crucifix into a body of water, after which the men dive to retrieve it. Did I mention she was from New York City? That would be Very Cold Indeed—something of a Greek variation on the Polar Bear Club. But I guess, as with Santa or Befana, you just gotta believe. And ouzo, lots of ouzo.
Any Epiphany traditions in your family? Please share below, if not too self-incriminating. Or if the statute of limitations has run out. Either way.