The holiday season is pretty much over. The ornaments are carefully packed away, the tree gone, and the New Year’s resolutions made. The usual grumblings about having eaten too much, drank too much, and spent too much have begun, and the festivities have given way to business as usual once again. That is, in America.
Here in Italy, the festivities continue. Today and tomorrow are holidays known as Epiphany or Befana. The piazza is packed while children await the appearance of La Befana, the quasi-witch-like peasant woman with a broom who gives treats or coal depending on the child’s behavior. She has long held the position occupied in the US by Santa Claus, who has only recently made his appearance into the Italian culture as Babbo Natale.
Epiphany is the last in a long string of celebrations that started with Immaculate Conception Day on December 8. Since then, we’ve had so many holidays involving celebrations with bells peeling, people gathering, and food to be enjoyed, that we’ve begun to lose count. For nigh a month it seems that every day is a holiday in Italy. There was La Vigilia, Christmas, and Santo Stefano, followed by San Silvestro and Capodanno. And now Befana. The party never ends!
These days are extended into long weekends, just to make it even more interesting. They call this “making a bridge” (fare un ponte) and so a holiday like today turns into a three or four day event.
The problem with all these holidays is that some are obscure to us and we don’t know until it is too late, because, of course, the fact of it being a festa means that most shops are closed. Including the food stores. You’ll remember my bare cupboards during the Immaculate Conception Day; this was repeated on New Year’s and the day after. We returned to Ascoli with visiting relatives on New Years’s Eve, too late to find any groceries in the centro open. We jumped in the car and headed to the centro commerciale (mall) and the ipermercato. We barely made it; they were crating up the produce and meats to store in the back as we tried to shop. “Uh, I need some lemons,” and the guy would rummage through the crates to dig some out. “Salsiccia?” “Tutto finito,” I was told. All sold out. “Try mixing some ground pork with seasonings instead.” (Which, by the way, worked well as the filling for my stuffed turkey breast dinner.) But within five minutes of our arrival the announcements were being made to bring the purchases to the registers as the store would be closing. San Silvestro is apparently an important saint to warrant such a holiday.
New Year’s eve lunch was a problem, too, as all the restaurants were closed in preparation for their grand cenone (big dinner parties) and didn’t want to bother with pranzo. The one restaurant with a door ajar was mobbed but we didn’t have much of a choice, so we wedged ourselves into the free table gratefully.
New Year’s Eve was spent in the Piazza Arringo with my uncle and aunt. Bryan was tucked into bed with a wretched cold and missed out on the mediocre band, the mayor doing the countdown, the fireworks (in the air overhead as well as right in the piazza), church bells clanging in 2007, and strangers handing us glasses of champagne. Ya gotta love Italia! The atmosphere was unlike any New Year’s I had celebrated and we loved it, even the very jetlagged relations.
And that brings us to Epiphany. I’m not sure what the traditional foods are for this big festa, but I at least knew it was coming and was able to make the rounds to procure provisions for the weekend. I went to the pasta all’uovo for the treasured ravioli, the butcher for spezzatino, the frutteria for veggies and fruit, and the bakery for bread. At least this holiday we won’t go hungry. I’m not sure, but I think this one marks the end of the season and soon they will begin the same routine with which we are familiar, of removing the decorations and getting back to work. But we had a heck of a lot of festive fun while it lasted.
copyright 2007 Valerie Schneider