Saturday, December 2, 2017

The Befana Fair in Rome

       In Rome the season of making gifts corresponding to our Christmas comes twelve days later, and the gift-bringer would not be called Santa Claus or Saint Nicholas, but Befana, a gruff little old woman. Perhaps she is in some way connected with the old woman of whom the legend is told that she was sweeping out her house when the Three Kings rode by with gifts for the infant Christ. " Come," they said, " and see the Bambin Gesu." She said she would when she had finished her sweeping. But though she took her gifts and started, she was too late then, of course, so she gave the presents to good children and bits of charcoal to those who had been naughty. The name is really a short form of Epifania, the Feast of Epiphany, and it is given both to the gift-bringer and to one of the most extraordinary popular festivals ever invented to amuse children and to turn grown people into children. It is a night fair opened every Eve of Epiphany in the great square called Piazza Navona, where long, long ago one of the Roman emperors, Domitian, once had his race-course. In the days just after Christmas workmen begin to bring out from queer underground storerooms all the lumber and other material needed for setting up booths and decorating the square for the Befana. From year to year it lies somewhere, ready for use at a moment's notice, and when needed it is suddenly produced without confusion, marked and numbered, all ready to be put together and regilded, or repainted, or hung with acres of bright-colored draperies. The Romans are masters of the art of managing public displays and change the empty, windy square as if by magic suddenly into a great oval street of booths enclosing the whole circus-shaped space. At dark on the Eve of the Epiphany the Befana begins. The hundreds of booths are choked with toys, and gleam with thousands of little lights. In the open spaces the moving crowd of children, parents, and grandparents grows closer and closer between sunset and midnight, and every one is splitting the air with some sort of whistle, horn, or trumpet. Noise is the chief need of a successful Befana, and the first thing every one buys who comes must be a tin horn or one of the grotesque little figures made of painted clay, always with a whistle in some part of it. Their very ugliness is attractive, and they are daubed with a kind of bright and harmless paint of which every Roman child remembers the taste so long as he lives. Round and round the crowd moves in a stream of young, old, and middle-aged, all blowing horns and whistles with a ridiculously solemn persistency, bent on making all the noise it is possible to get out of one small toy. Now and then they stop to buy at some booth, or to greet a friend; one group attacks another with a specially strong burst of noise almost too much to stand when shrill whistles are brought close to ears, and there are shouts of laughter when the party which can make the most hideous noise drives off the other half deaf from the din.
       In one long-remembered year, in the old English Protestant church about a mile away, the organ was rebuilt and the organist, a practical Anglo-Saxon, had the useless old pipes sold at the night fair for the benefit of the church. The braying of the high cracked reeds was frightful and never to be forgotten.
       Thousands upon thousands of people throng the square; even under the clear winter sky it is not cold; the flaring, smoking, wind-blown torches throw strange shadows down upon the old women who behind the booths sit warming their skinny hands over earthen pots of glowing coals. They look on without a smile on their wrinkled faces while their sons and daughters sell little old women of clay, the very images of their mothers, to passing customers. And there is no confusion, no accident, no trouble, there are no drunken men and no pickpockets. But Romans are not like other people. J. C. Dier, 1911.

A little Italian girl talks about La Befana and visits 

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