top of page


As a young girl, I would writhe with irritation whenever someone squealed, “Oh I loooove Italian food!” Sotto voce, I would mumble that they should visit our house in the days before Christmas.

There, in the laundry, they would find eels in a bucket, no doubt dreading their beheading on Christmas Eve. In another bucket they would see baccala’ soaking, but, of course, they would have already smelt that as they opened the door. Then the squid and octopus greeted a squeamish child with their pungent odour whenever she opened the fridge door. It wasn’t easy.

Morning market on Via Toledo, Naples.

And the dates would be all skewed for an Italo-Australian child. All our decorations, and especially the wreath on the door, would be put out for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8th (I know, the maths is just not right) and stay up until the Feast of the Epithany on January 6th and not a day later. When we were very young, our presents were delivered not by Babbo Natale, Father Christmas, but by La Befana, the kind but ugly witch who went from house to house delivering gifts on the eve of January 6th. How this came about was a story retold many times in our household as a lesson for why we should always be on time and the consequences that could befall a wayward girl like me who was forever late. As my father recounted the story, I Tre Magi, the three wise men, whose names incidentally, are Gasparre, Baldassare and Melchiorre (my head is full of useless information like this), were following the Star that would lead them to the newborn baby Jesus. At some point, they were stopped by an old woman with a broom who asked them where they were going. They told her and invited her to join them. She replied that she was busy doing housework (our stories diverge at this point) and would go later. Of course, she missed the guidance of the Star and had no idea where to go. (Do you see where I fit in?) So now, La Befana continues to wander around Italy (and around Australia, in our telling) bringing rewards to the good children and putting black coal into the shoes of the naughty ones, hoping that in one of the houses is the Christ child whose birth she missed.

This is a special nursery rhyme (filastroccha) for La Befana that all Italian children know by heart.

La Befana

Con le scarpe tutte rotte

Col vestito alla ‘romana’

Viva viva la Befana

Porta cenere e carboni

Ai bambini cattivoni

Ai bambini belli e buoni

Porta chicchi e tanti doni!

The befana comes by night

With her shoes all broken

With a dress in roman style

Long live the befana!

She brings ashes and coal

To bad children

To the good children

She brings lollies and many gifts!

Nowadays, La Befana is part of the sanctified Christian traditions superimposed on many folk and pagan traditions connected to the new year and to the twelve days following the winter solstice. Her name, of course, is a corruption of the Greek term, “epiphany” which commemorates the arrival of the Magi to the manger where Christ was born.

Photo credit: wikipedia

The pagan origins of this Feast go back to ancient times when effigies of an “old lady” would be burned in the town squares to celebrate the end of the year, a symbol of the cycle of birth and death. La Befana also recalls the rites of the Celtic peoples who once inhabited the whole Pianura Padana and part of the Alps, when wicker puppets were set on fire to placate the gods. The coal that she would leave for the naughty children was, in fact, a symbol of fertility connected with the bonfires. For our Befana, the broomstick is a necessary means of travel since her shoes are “all broken”, but it also clearly resembles a magic wand and connects again to the rituals of nature.

I remember leaving her a plate with an orange cut up into wedges and a glass of wine. In the morning, the plate was empty, the glass turned upside down and a handprint in ashes on the plate. Needless to say, there was always a piece of coal in my shoes.

Christmas traditions vary throughout Italy: in the north they are vastly different from those I know in the southern regions. I remember one Christmas, many years ago, when Stephen and I were in Calabria. We were treated to a grand spectacle. Groups of zampognari, dressed in traditional sheepskin and wool cloaks, came down from their seasonal mountain homes playing the “bagpipes” or zampogne, on the way to greet their families. These very ancient instruments are named after the ancient Greek, “simponia”, meaning single reed. Thanks to music festivals, like our own Womadelaide, these instruments, still played in Lazio, Calabria, Sicily, Abruzzo and alta Molise, are having a resurgence. But, like La Befana, the zampognari tradition is endangered. Our splendid witch has lost her battle with the “Coca Cola” man dressed in red and easy travel mean that shepherds no longer spend months in the mountains away from their families.

Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music (1966)

Some traditions may wane but the tradition of the presepe or nativity scene is alive and well. Most cities, and certainly all houses, will have at least one fabulous scene on display. Styles vary from the simple and rustic to ornate, over the top, gold embellished “Mac” mangers. The baby Jesus is put in place on Christmas Eve, the three wise men are installed on the eve of January 6th and all is complete. The Pope says evening mass on Christmas Eve in St Peter’s Square and it is he who adds the baby Jesus to the Vatican’s life size nativity scene.

One year, you must travel to Naples in late September or October as I did with a small group this year. Visit Via San Gregorio Armeno, just off Spaccanapoli in the historical centre to see the street of nativity workshops. The artisans will be preparing their shops for Christmas and you can observe these skilled craftsmen working on the figures as they carve and paint them.

Magnificent presepe made by artisans at La Scarabattola, Via Tribunali, Napoli

Apparently, it was St. Francis of Assisi in the 13th century who popularised the presepe, using live animals and real people for his nativity scenes. Sometimes, even today, the presepe consist of real people and animals and are called presepi viventi.

Neapolitans are always ready to laugh. Add some quirky modern day characters from Via San Gregorio Armeno to your presepe.

And so, as always, to food. This is the subject for my next post. I will give you time to put up the decorations and clear the laundry ready for the eels and baccala'.

bottom of page