In Australia we consider Christmas well and truly over once Boxing Day rolls around, but this isn’t the case in Italy with celebrations carrying through until early January.
The Feast of the Epiphany and the tradition of La Befana are a big part of Italian Christmas celebrations and are celebrated on January 6th with a national holiday in Italy. Epiphany commemorates the 12th day of Christmas when the three Wise Men arrived at the manger bearing gifts for Baby Jesus. The traditional Christmas holiday season in Italy lasts through Epiphany.
Italy’s traditional celebration includes the tale of a witch known as La Befana who arrives on her broomstick during the night of January 5 and fills the stockings with toys and sweets for the good children and lumps of coal for the bad ones.
According to the legend, the night before the Wise Men arrived at the manger they stopped at the shack of an old woman to ask directions. They invited her to come along but she replied that she was too busy. Then a shepherd asked her to join him but again she refused. Later that night, she saw a great light in the sky and decided to join the Wise Men and the shepherd bearing gifts that had belonged to her child who had died.
She got lost and never found the manger.
Now La Befana flies around on her broomstick each year on the 11th night, bringing gifts to children in hopes that she might find the Baby Jesus. Children hang their stockings on the evening of January 5 awaiting the visit of La Befana.
The origins of La Befana may actually go back farther, to the Roman’s pagan festival of Saturnalia, a one or two week festival starting just before the winter solstice. At the end of Saturnalia, Romans would go to the Temple of Juno on the Capitoline Hill to have their augers read by an old crone. Many pagan traditions were incorporated into Christmas celebrations when Christianity became main stream.
La Befana Festivals
Various celebrations are held across Italy and include festivals, parades, concerts, races, processions and living nativities. In Vatican City, following another Epiphany tradition, a procession of hundreds of people in medieval costumes walk along the wide avenue leading up to the Vatican, carrying symbolic gifts for the Pope. The Pope says a morning mass in St Peter’s Basilica to commemorate the visit of the Wise Men bearing gifts for Jesus.
Epiphany closes the holiday season (the Italian rhyme states that “L’Epifania tutte le feste porta via”: “With Epiphany all the holidays are over”) and marks the beginning of Carneval.
What to cook for Epiphany
Who doesn’t love Italian? Here are some recipes to cook at home to get you into the Italian festive spirit.
Rustic Apple Tart (Tarte aux Pommes Rustique)
1-1/4 cups flour
4 tablespoons sugar, plus 2 tablespoons later
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) cold sweet butter, plus a bit for dotting later
1 egg yolk
ice water as needed
3 apples, cut into rough slices
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 tablespoons peach jam (optional)
In a cold bowl combine the flour, 4 tablespoons sugar, and salt. Carefully cut in the butter, making sure not to mix it in too finely.
Whisk together the egg yolk and 3 tablespoons of water. Use a fork to stir them into the butter mixture. Add a little more cold water as needed to make the dough capable of forming into a ball (but barely).
Wrap the ball of dough in wax paper and refrigerate it for at least 1 hour.
At the end of the hour, preheat the oven to 200 degrees. Pat the dough into a circle about 25cm in diameter (the rougher looking the better; remember; we’re being “rustique” here) on a nonstick cookie pan with edges that come up at the sides (so nothing can spill into your oven).
Toss the apple pieces into the cinnamon and remaining sugar. Arrange the tossed apple pieces on your crust. If desired, heat the jam and drizzle it over the apples. Dot with butter.
Bake until the crust browns nicely (it’s best a little crispy), about 20 to 30 minutes.
Serves 6 to 8.
3 cups of flour type 00
1-1/2 cups of sugar
200g of softened butter
1/2 cup of milk
3 eggs plus 1 for the egg wash
Zest of one orange
Zest of half lemon
1 tablespoon of baking powder
1 pinch of salt
2 tablespoon of Sambuca or Rum
In the bowl of a standing mixer combine the flour and the sugar. Then add the softened butter and process slowly. Add the eggs and continue processing. Now add the orange zest, the lemon zest, the baking powder, the salt and the liqueur. Work the dough for 10 minutes on medium speed adding the milk as necessary to make a smooth dough. Process the dough until it detaches from the side of the food processor bowl. Transfer the dough on a floured pastry board and kneed it fast to form a ball.
Wrap the dough in wrapping film and let rest in the refrigerator for 30 minutes. Preheat oven to 180 degrees. Add enough flour to the working surface and around your rolling pin and start rolling out the dough. Your sheet of dough should not be less than 6mm thick. Use cookie cutters in different shapes to cut your cookies. Place them on the cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. Make an egg wash with one egg and a little bit of milk. Brush the cookies with the egg wash and add sprinkles. Bake the biscotti for 12-14 minutes at 180 degrees. The cookies should be a nice gold colour when done. Remove from oven and transfer to a cooling rack.
300g meal flour
10 dried figs
1 apple (cut into pieces)
1 tablespoon aniseed
1 teaspoon baking powder
Put the meal and white flours in a frying pan with sugar, cooking and adding hot water. Keep on mixing and after 20 minutes add butter, sultanas, liqueur, aniseeds, dry figs and apples. Cook for 20 minutes more stirring the mixture. Then pour in a cake tin lined with wet greaseproof paper and cook in the preheated oven at 170° until brown on the top.