Today is the feast of Epifania, which is known in Italy simply as “Befana.” In fact, many people in Italy will greet each other on the street today with the words, “Buon Befana.” This salutation refers to La Befana, the Italian Christmas witch. She is still searching for Baby Jesus, whom she learned about from the Three Kings. Throughout her journey every Jan. 6, she offers gifts to other Italian children in the hopes she will one day find Gesu. Or at least that is how one of our story books tells the story. There are a few theories about how she came into this job.
Befana – From Whence She Came
Indeed, she made a stop at our house this morning. When my son awakes, he will be surprised. He went to bed early with visions of the Italian Christmas witch in his mind. Now, Befana is no Santa. She is a poor old lady. Before this gig, Befana was best known for sweeping inside and outside her home everyday. She mostly kept to herself. So, she offers up one or two small gifts to each child. When my father was a kid in Italy in the 1950s, he received tangerines, walnuts, a piece of chocolate, and pencils for school in his socks from Befana. Back then, she was the only gift giver of the season. Times have changed.
Even though Santa has since grown more popular than Befana even in Italy, she still makes her rounds on Jan. 6. This, in fact, marks the end of the holiday season and work and school breaks, which is different from the United States. Many families will gather again today for one more special meal. Children will recite poems for pennies — err euro. And Befana will leave a little something for them. Sometimes, adults even give each other little tokens of their love on Befana’s day. The Epiphany, after all, is about the arrival of the three kings, also known as three wise men. They had brought little gifts to baby Jesus and his family in Bethlehem.
One Last Hurrah
Throughout the holiday season, we keep a Befana doll hanging over our window. Some of our American friends think we’ve forgotten her there since Halloween. But Italians know better. You can read more about Befana in my previous stories:
Every person in an Italian family has to be useful. If you don’t bring anything to the table (literally and figuratively), you’re out. There’s one guy who does the plumbing, and another who does the electrical work. There’s one guy who works at the banquet hall, where everybody gets married or christened. There’s another guy who knows a guy who sells cars. Nonna makes the meatballs. Nonno becomes the chauffeur. Sometimes, it’s the other way around, but you get the point. I’m the family historian and tradition maker, or at least that’s what I like to think. After all, livin’ the dream means making photo props and pancakes in the shape of Mickey Mouse, doesn’t it?
Usually, everyone who cooks becomes known for a few signature dishes. It is what you are expected to bring to the family reunion or neighborhood block party. Funny enough, my relatives in Italy ask for different bits of deliciousness than those who live in the United States. Even different branches of the family in those areas ask for different things. For example, my husband’s sisters really love these chicken wings I make with balsamic vinegar and soy sauce and both chocolate chip and peanut butter cookies. My father’s side of the family in the United States will disown me if I ever stop making them pumpkin ice cream for Halloween and gingerbread ice cream for Christmas. They also expect me to recreate Mango Poppyseed dressing from Walt Disney World’s Ohana restaurant at the Polynesian Village Resort. And I never have enough salad on hand.
Still, my mother’s side of the family, especially one of my great uncles, keep me in the family for my ability to make Strawberry Tiramisu – the boozy version. I have made this for kids with orange juice instead of Cointreau, but the big kids prefer the alcohol. It’s an old recipe from Giada De Laurentiis. And what’s great about is that there’s no cooking or baking whatsoever, so it’s really easy to make. Also, you can use the strawberries to make a design that matches any theme. The one I made above was for my son’s birthday party, so I used his initials. You could make a heart for Valentine’s Day, a four-leaf clover for St. Patrick’s Day, or a bunny for Easter. Let your imagination guide you. Remember to soak those Savoyardi in the Cointreau mixtures to guarantee your spot in the family – at least for this week.
Today, I’m having an Epiphany or, rather, an Epifania. Today is the feast of the Epiphany, which is known as Epifania in Italy. Get it?
Many around the world refer to this day as Little Christmas, the day when the three wise men arrived in Bethlehem bearing gifts for Baby Jesus. Anyway, my husband and I are heading into our son’s school to read Tomie dePaola’s book, Old Befana, and bring little gifts from the Italian Christmas witch, who visits Italian homes on the eve of the Epiphany. Yes, La Befana as she is fondly known uses a broom instead of reindeer. Being poor, she only leaves a small gift and some chocolate (also mandarins and walnuts) for good little boys and girls and coal for those who’ve been naughty. My father remembers finding these treats in his shoes or his sister’s actual stockings when he was a kid in Italy in the 1950s. Nowadays, kids leave out pretty stockings like the ones Americans use for Santa’s visit. And the witch made it all the way to the United States and left our son and his cousins a few treats. The fact that this tradition combines images of my son’s two favorite holidays – Halloween and Christmas – is a priceless bonus. Tonight, we eat and eat some more. The homemade pizza dough is already rising. To all who celebrate, have yourself a merry Little Christmas now!
Over the weekend, my husband, Baby Boy, and I walked the streets in the town of Ischia Ponte searching for presepi, nativity scenes. These are not your ordinary creches. These are usually made entirely by hand, feature various scenes besides the Holy Family and Wise Men. And each is as unique as the artist (or artists) who create it. Often, they include depictions of life in the neighborhood in which it was made. My father makes one every year that takes up an entire room in his house and includes fountains, live plants, lights, and music. And the ones in Ischia, his home island, where he learned the art of the presepio, bring this tradition to a whole new level. For example, the photo above is of a folk musical troupe that would also build roofs for townspeople in Ischia. They would sing and keep time with the sticks and tools used to flatten the roof. My own grandfather played the clarinet for the group. Many in the group would also dress in costume for ‘Ndrezzata, a traditional folk song and dance that can only be played by those from the town of Buonopane. Nonno was on board for that, too. And those performers, who continue to put on shows today, also made it into this presepio. See below for this and other photos from other presepi around town. Trust me, the pictures don’t do justice to their magnificence.
Either Ischia, Italy heeded my call for a festive and traditional Halloween celebration or the country is just becoming totally Americanized. When I walked onto Ischia’s main street on Oct. 31, there were kids dressed up and shouting “scherzetti o dolcetti” (Italian for “trick or treat”) all around me. So, some of the costumes were just orange T-shirts. So what? There was still free candy. And I spotted a devil, a couple of witches, and moms sporting alien antennas and cat’s ears. Granted, it wasn’t nearly as epic as American Halloween and there were no school parades of kids in costume or grand, Halloween-themed parties (except for ours). But it was way more than I expected. Italy surprised me.
I was thrilled to have found the spirit of Halloween in the most unexpected of places. My father knew nothing of Halloween when he moved to the United States in 1960 and until recently the holiday had no meaning here. The kids dressed up and ate what we would call funnel cake for Carnevale (Fat Tuesday) in February or March. Now, Halloween – thanks to popular American movies and TV shows – has arrived in Italy. My nieces dressed like vampires and my son was a dragon who fit right in celebrating his holiday abroad. The smaller world means we have fewer differences between us but that also means we have fewer differences. It could take away from the unique experiences one has when she goes abroad. And if everyone becomes American, how much fun would that be? Not much, in my opinion. But I was more than willing to overlook this yesterday. I was just grateful to have fellow trick or treaters helping to build the excitement for my little guy — and keep him from ripping off his costume, which is what he was doing for about 30 minutes until I bribed him with exactly four M&Ms. Yes, you can judge me now. In my defense, he actually ate no other candy the entire day or evening. Honest.
Of course, I still had to force my Halloween traditions on the in-laws, so we had to have a party. Take note of all the DIY decorations. I haven’t used so many markers and construction paper since the first grade. Baby Boy helped. Here’s how the festa went:
I’m a big fan of Halloween games. My mom sent Baby Boy a witch’s hat ring toss game, which he enjoyed while the adults ate dinner. For years, in the States, my cousins and I played the Mummy Game, where you break up into teams. Each team dresses one of its players like a mummy using toilet paper. The fastest team to create a live mummy wins. Yes, yes, I forced my adult relatives to oblige.
My husband and his nephew – the mummies – would not let me post their silly pictures online. But they were hilarious and you could tell how much fun they had from the looks on their faces (you could see through the TP, trust me). Yes, they are major party poopers Still, Baby Boy stuck with tradition, too, by jumping around and throwing the TP after the game was over. He got things started by de-mummifying his father.
I cooked everything for the party myself. The menu consisted of butternut squash soup (we had to special order the butternut squash and it’s green on the outside and bright orange on the inside but shaped like its American namesake), sausage and peppers, and Caesar salad. To top the soup, I cut pumpkins out of white sandwich bread, brushed olive oil on them, and sprinkled them with Parmigiano cheese before toasting them in the oven. Cupcakes, of course, made for the perfect dessert for this kid-friendly party. And I also made popcorn (a favorite with my nieces and nephew) and homemade honey roasted peanuts again. Delish!
Yes, the cupcakes are 100 percent from scratch, and I drew spider webs on the vanilla ones. Mamma had fun on Halloween, too.
Halloween is another one of those cultural exchanges that I’ve been having with family and friends as I continue to pass my time living in Ischia, an island off the coast of Naples in Italy. Italy knows not of Halloween. Its people think they know Halloween because nowadays one or two stores have a pumpkin in the window, they cook with pumpkin here, and a few shopkeepers hand out candy to the kids on the 31st. C’mon. That’s barely one-tenth of an American Halloween celebration. Rather than just miss one of my favorite holidays or stew in my jealousy over all my American Facebook friends and their pumpkin-picking, costume-wearing, party-throwing Halloween amazingness, I decided to force the holiday – the real holiday – on my Italian peeps.
Part 1 in this quest required I make all sorts of crafts with the help of 2-year-old Baby Boy. He’s gotten pretty good with the ol’ Elmer’s Glue if I do say so myself. This is a Halloween party for my toddler son, so the decorations are not scary. We had my mom ship us some Halloween paper plates and cups with a friendly ghost, black cat, bat, and spider on it, so we used that as the inspiration for our projects.
First up were the tissue paper spiders, like the one in the photo above. Everyone from Martha Stewart to your local PTA mom makes those tissue paper pom-poms or flowers for parties these days. I buy tissue in bulk from the dollar store and never leave the States without it. I’ve used them the traditional way hanging from a ceiling, as flowers in a vase, and last Halloween I turned them into Monsters by attaching giant googly eyes. Thinking back on that stroke of genius, I decided to turn them into spiders this year, by attaching pipe cleaner legs (by running them through the rubber band at the center of the “flower” and then securing them with the orange ribbon that also serves to hang them) in addition to the eyes.
You can’t have Halloween without costumes. Since the Italians won’t have any, I decided to supply them with simple DIY get ups that can also serve as photo booth props…
I cut eyes out of a black and green spider from a set of foam shapes my mom had sent us from the States. I then attached a couple of googly eyes to each spider. Then, I tied an elastic string from one end to another and voila. I did the same for the black and orange cats in that same set. See below.
Second, I had to get Baby Boy even more involved than helping me drop a little glue where needed. So, I pulled out his paint set and some paper. I painted his hands black and had him make his prints on white paper so that his palms and thumbs overlapped and his fingers were printed in opposite directions. This created the look of a spider, which he thought needed a few fingerprints of orange, too. And we glued on more of those googly eyes. Mamma made a spider web and the words Boo using orange and black construction paper and there you have it. I won’t take credit for this project because similar versions of this one are all over the Internet, which is where I got the idea. My sister-in-law also has done the ghosts using her kids’ footprints in white. Very cute as well!
By the way, Baby Boy also made that pumpkin you spy underneath his hand-print spider, reports the proud Mamma. Of course, with 13 relatives expected to be on hand for the party I’m throwing on the 31st, two Halloween-inspired shades are not enough. I made the masks below using a template from a make-your-own mask kit that my mother had sent us. I just traced the mask from the kit onto foam sheets and cut them out and then added the witch’s hats, which were in that same set of foam shapes as the others.
And finally I used another one of the shapes in that set to make a pumpkin mask. All I did was cut out the eyes and nose and add eyebrows and candy corn fangs.
Coming up on Friday – Italy Meet Halloween Part 2, where you’ll see our party for yourself and discover if the Italians bought into the Halloween hype.
Today is the feast of Saint Francis (San Francesco in Italy). Those of us named Francesco and Francesca celebrate our name day (onomastico in Italian) today. This is a religious celebration, and you might have heard about the Pope (who took Francis/Francesco as his Pope name) marking the occasion with a trip to his namesake’s birthplace, Assisi. Back on the home front, we have secular celebrations akin to birthday parties. As the one celebrating, my job is to provide friends and family with sweets. Many people bring their colleagues pastries on the morning of their name day. I baked peanut butter cookies for my in-laws because my niece shares my name and those are her favorite. We ate pizzette (tiny pizzas) and French fries. Of course, that was dinner and at lunch we had a pasta dish with ham and a creamy sauce, followed by mozzarella in carrozza (Italian grilled cheese) and eggplant parmigiana. Obviously, there was no thought to cholesterol; it was a party, after all. Like everything else in Italy, name days are all about the food. Those closest to you sometimes give you small gifts. And my husband really surprised me this morning. He left a beautifully wrapped present in the bathroom for me to find when I awoke (and he was already off to work). The contents of said gift are in the photo above. What meant the most was the saying on the placeholder in the frame. Eternamente insieme! Together Forever! I hope so.
My father and grandfathers never gave up their wine — or making it themselves. Even though they’ve been in the United States for more than 40 years, they continue to keep up this tradition from the homeland. Now that I’m here in Ischia, I can better understand their connection to wine (even if I don’t share their love for the stuff). The vendemmia, or grape harvest, is a joyful time in Ischia. It’s cause for celebration. Even the children get in on the act because the schools here often bring students to see how to make wine and learn about Ischia’s history at the same time.
In fact, my niece Laura Porraro, 10, recently visited the Museo del Contadino (Museum of the Peasant) in Forio, Ischia, with her class. And she took many photos that she shared with me (and all of you). She also told me all about what she learned, which I included in an article I wrote about the vendemmia for ItaliansRus.com and La Voce, a newspaper for Italian Americans in Las Vegas. You can check out more of Laura’s photos at the “Wine Making in Ischia” and “Presepio at Forio Museum” photo albums. If you stop by the ItaliansRus site, you should also take a peek at “Where in the World are Antonio and Dante?“, the new column that my editor Anthony Parente is writing for the site. You’ll get clues as to where in Italy his sons Antonio and Dante are traveling. Who knows? They might eventually end up somewhere in Ischia.