Burning “La Befana” – Very Much A Local Tradition

One of the things that I try really hard to impress upon visitors is how divided Italy is. Until very recently it was not one country and mobility between towns, cities and across mountain ranges was limited. As a result, regional traditions are more localised than you may have first imagined and remain very much undiluted.

I’m in the Veneto, up in the north east between Lake Garda and Venice. More precisely, my town lies on the boundary between two provinces – Verona and Vicenza. When I first moved to Italy, I was staying on the Verona side; now I’ve moved over to Vicenza. The two places are only a 15 min drive away but there are many differences.

Firstly the dialect is different:

‘What shall we do?’ is Cosa facciamo? in Italian. “cosa faemo?” and “cosa fazemo?” in dialetto vicentino. Not huge differences but enough for it to be obvious where you come from.

Similarly, you may well know that “a glass” is “un bicchiere” in Italian. In vicentino, I hear “biccher” quite commonly, while back on the other hill, it was “un goto.”

Finally “cucchiaio” (“a spoon”) becomes “cuchar” or “cucharo” if you’re in the province of Verona… but if you get closer to Vicenza and across to Padova, it’s “scugliero!

It’s not just the language; there are many cultural differences too.

In the province of Verona, the most important celebration over the Christmas period is the Festa della Santa Lucia on December 13th. It is traditionally on this date that the families get together and presents are exchanged. In Vicenza, however, Santa Lucia is not recognised, nor is Christmas particularly, and we have another important date instead: the 6th January.

You may know that date as being Epiphany, y’know, the three kings, twelfth night, end of the festivities… Not so. Here it’s called La Befana.

La Befana is a old woman or a witch who would fly across the sky at night, delivering presents and treats to children. (Haven’t I heard this story before…….?) In this case, there’s a slight twist because she’s supposedly searching for baby Jesus…. here’s what Wikipedia has to say about the legend:

“The magi invited her to join them on the journey to find the baby Jesus, but she declined, stating she was too busy with her housework. Later, La Befana had a change of heart, and tried to search out the astrologers and Jesus. That night she was not able to find them, so to this day, La Befana is searching for the little baby. She leaves all the good children toys and candy (“caramelle”) or fruit, while the bad children get coal (“carbone”), onions or garlic.”

You might think it’s all hullabaloo and old folklore but several of my local friends got stockings full of presents from La Befana yesterday and this seems true in other regions throughout the boot.


There’s a second thing though and this seems more localised. On Jan 6th in the evening, all our neighbouring towns hold bonfires, upon which they have an effigy of La Befana who gets burned (yes, very much like the story of Guy Fawkes in England.) I’ve heard it explained that it’s the occasion to get rid of or burn anything from the previous year that you don’t want to take with you into the new.

As for us, well, we had gone to a small town called Valeggio sul Mincio (between Verona and Mantova) for a long lunch with a dear friend (more about that soon) and then came back to watch the bonfire. Most of the town’s population turned out for the event, which was washed down with plenty of mulled wine, sausages, polenta and prosecco.

So You Think You Speak Italian?

So you’ve taken a couple of classes, downloaded Duolingo and bought a hefty dictionary. You can breeze through conversations with natives and even answering the phone to an unknown number is no longer intimidating.

You’re ready to move onto the next level. The next three phrases are not the Italian that you learn in a classroom, but the kind of language you hear on the street.

“È un botto e mezzo.” (origin: Veneto.)

Meaning: “It’s one thirty.” Literally “it’s one bang and a half,” it refers to the church bells which ring out over the hills.

 

Battoro (origin: Sardinia)

Meaning: Four. To go from quattro to quattoro to finally battoro is not a straightforward leap but you can just about nod and go, ah yes, that makes sense. Still, the first time you hear it, it sounds really strange.

 

Xareza (origin: Veneto)

Pronunciation: sa-reza

Meaning: cherry. Xareza is the word in Veronese/Vicentino dialect for cherry and there sure are a whole lot of cherries in this part of the world (especially the Val d’Alpone.) I’ve found that many words in dialect are somewhat similar to the French equivalent, and this, cerise, is no exception. Remember that when this dialect is written down, an “s” sound becomes an “x.”


As a side-note, the Sicilian electrician currently drilling away in the house next-door has a wonderful way of speaking. He came a couple of weeks ago for a meeting with the architect and the plumber and when asked when he would start work, he replied “un lunedi.” Monday came and went with no sign of him. When we phoned a couple of days afterwards, his reply was so good I will remember it for the rest of my days: “no, I said I would start on a Monday.”