Befana and Panevin traditions in Italy

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I feel a special bond with the Panevin and Befana traditions. This bond dates back to many years ago, when I was just a little child. My family has always celebrated all festivities at my grandparents. I was so little I have only blurred memories. My favourite one is precisely the panevin when, during the day before Epiphany, we went along the Piave river bank to watch the fire. I loved it: The golden and red sparks flying towards the sky, the crackling sounds, the dancing flames and the joyful atmosphere with cheerful people all around. The thing I miss the most of my childhood is that feeling of being safe. Sadly I have grown up and I turned out to be a very anxious person, always over thinking, emotional, insecure. I always think about that time with a bitter sweet sentiment.

Nowadays, while in other areas panevin is still celebrated on the 5th, in Padova the bonfire is actually set on January the 6th in Prato della Valle, one of the largest squares in Europe, under the strict control of the city firefighters. The piazza was full of people, all the children around me were thrilled. While we were waiting, I saw countless (kidding, they were 4, I think) Masha and the Bear balloons escaping the delicate grasp of their recent owners. But their disappointment transformed into joy as soon as the fire started to burn. It was fun and most of all warming (in every sense) too watch the fire. I still enjoy those things as if I were a little girl!

Walking towards the Befana bonfire, Prato della Valle, Padova
Walking towards the Befana bonfire, Prato della Valle, Padova

Befana and Panevin bakground

Befana bonfire
Befana bonfire

Panevin is a beloved tradition of the North East of Italy. The word is built connecting “pan e vin” (meaning bread and wine – as auspice for abundance). Depending on the area the name varies though: brusa la vecia (burn the old woman), vecia (old woman), fogherada (bonfire), pìrola pàrola (related to the greek word “fire”, pyros) etc. It consists of a bonfire celebrated usually on the Eve of Epiphany as a sort of propitiatory rite. Often above the pile of branches there is a dummy with an old woman appearance, la vecia, symbol of all the past year’s bad things.

The firefighters check the pile
The firefighters check the pile

It derives from the purification rites (connected with the seasonal cycles and agriculture) people used to perform during pre-Christian times. The puppet represents the past, the old year, which has to burn in order to make room for the new and hopefully better one. The flames represent hope. During the panevin people eat the pinsa cake (which I hate because it has fennel seeds) and drink mulled wine.

The direction of smoke and sparks is an omen. An old saying recites:

Pan e vin,
la pinsa sotto il camin.
Faive a ponente
panoce gnente,
faive a levante
panoce tante.

Bread and wine,
la pinsa (a typical cake) under the fireplace.
Sparks to the West
no cobs,
sparks to the East
many cobs.

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You will find a video of the Befana bonfire.

Grazie mille!

Brusa la vecia
Brusa la vecia

Later, during the night, la befana [beh-FAH-nah], an old ugly (but kind) woman delivers gifts to the kids flying with her broom. She fill their socks with presents. While once (when for example my parents were kids) the gifts consisted of simple things like tangerines and nuts, nowadays kids are spoiled by an impressive amount of candies.

The Roman Church members soon began (IV century AD) to condemn all the pagan rituals. So they borrowed and reshaped a legend:

Befana bonfire, Padova
Befana bonfire, Padova

Along their road to visit baby Jesus the Re Magi, the Three Wise Men, got lost and asked an old lady to accompany them and show them the way. She refused at first, but then she changed her mind. She filled a basket with treats and looked for them from house to house hoping to find baby Jesus and giving her treats to all the kids she met to be forgiven.

A little piece of coal was once put in every sock as a symbol of the bonfire ritual. The Catholic influence then transformed this custom. Only children who have misbehaved should receive coal… but they usually don’t.

Befana bonfire, Padova
Befana bonfire, Padova
The firefighters extinguish the fire
The firefighters extinguish the fire

The term Befana derives from the greek word “epiphania“, which means “to reveal”. The day of the Epiphany is January 6th, the day on which the Three Wise Men revealed Jesus as the Christ.

Here’s a short traditional nursery rhyme about la Befana. All the kids know it here:

La Befana vien di notte
Con le scarpe tutte rotte 
Col vestito alla romana
Viva, Viva La Befana!
The Befana comes by night
With the shoes all torn
Dressed in the Roman way.
Long live the Befana!

What do you think about these traditions? Does something similar exist where you come from?

Stream of people leaving after the bonfire
Stream of people leaving after the bonfire. It took us 40 minutes (usually 20) to get home.

For this post I used my own knowledge and wikipedia.org
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