Thursday, December 30, 2010

Il 6 Gennaio arriva l'Epifania che tutte le feste porta via.

On the 6th of January comes the Epiphany, the feast to end all feasts.

Old Tuscan proverb

Although the Epiphany is the first feast we choose to celebrate in the New Year, it traditionally functioned as the culmination to various year-end celebrations. For Italian Catholics, it is the final day of the 12 days of Christmas, when the divinity of the Christ child was revealed. In Tuscany the most enduring and popular symbols of the Christmas season are the presepi, depictions of Christ in the manger visited by the three wise men, and the befana, a witch who, flying on a broom, delivers gifts to children on the night before Epiphany.

The word befana, in Tuscan vernacular, is a simplification of Pifania and the original Italian Epiphania. Derived from the classical Greek Epiphaneia, it means "the divine made visible," an allusion to the emergence of the sun from behind the clouds. In the ancient world the sun, its rebirth and the lenghtening of the days were celebrated around the winter equinox, which in our Gregorian calendar falls the 21st of December.

Romans celebrated the winter equinox, which on their Julian calendar fell on the 25th of December, in many ways, but the overarching weeklong festival was the Saturnalia, honoring Saturn, the god of seed and sowing. By mid-December thr winter planting was done, the harvest stored and the wine cellared. The days were the shortest of the year and agricultural work was minimal. Business was suspended, gifts were exchanged, and the slaves were liberated from their normal duties.

Emperor Aurelian declared the 25th of December to be the festival of the sun, Natalis Sol Invictus, celebrating the birth of god Mithras, and other sun dieties. For 12 days, until the 6th of January, a tree trunk, that by the end of the year represented the "old" mother nature, was slowly burned to exorcise the hardships of the previous year. According to common belief, during the nights, the spirit of Diana, the goddess of fertility, would fly over the lands to make them productive.

Under Emperor Constantine in the 4th century A.D., Christianity became the official religion of the Empire and, because the pagan celebrations around the festival of the sun were so popular, the Church fathers wisely co-opted some of the miths, symbols and pracitices of the ancient religions, and even decreed that Christ's birthday occured on December 25th. In 391 A.D., Emperor Theodosius 1 prohibited all other religions and cults, and temples to ancient Roman Gods began to be destroyed. So, the old proverb about the Epiphany could well of been written "the feast that put an end to all the other feasts."

New Year’s Eve in Tuscany

Many Italians celebrate the arriving of the new year with friends at home or also at a restaurant. There is also a large number of Italians which prefer to go on holiday directly after Christmas until Epiphany (Befana) on January 6th. As a national tradition (that is increasing always more the one goes to southern Italy) one needs to have on December 31st a very special and rich New Year’s Eve dinner, called Cenone. During a real cenone can’t be missed a Zampone that is a pig’s trotter stuffed with seasoned mincemeat with lentils. The ladder should pracitically burn the fat of the zampone, but Italians believe that lentils bring lots of money and happiness during the new year. Also the wearing of red coloured accessories should bring luck, that’s why many Italians prefer to wear this “potential” luck underneath…

Another important point to know if celebrating New Year’s Eve in Italy is the tradition to eat until Midnight. Exactly at midnight, Sparkling wine will flow, accompanied by a delicous slice of Pandoro or Panettone.

Sparkling Holidays with an Italian Bubbly

Not to be outdone by the French, Italy also has a long and rich tradition of sparkling wine. Sparkling wines, in general, are called spumante, but under that blanket are a wide variety of sparklers from everyone’s taste and budget. The most famous sparklers are the Prosecco from Veneto and Moscato D’Asti from Piedmont. You really can’t go wrong with an Italian sparkling wine to enhance your holiday festivities.

When I am in Rome, it is sometimes fun to start out the tasting with one of these sparkling gems. Why should Champagne get all the credit when one of the best houses for sparklers is right here in Italy? The cantina Ferrari. Like the car, Ferrari makes excellent and high quality spumante wines, but without the high sticker price of a Ferrari. The house of Ferrari is in the region of Trentino, in the northeast near the city of Trent. Trent is known as the “painted city” and makes its claim to Church fame as the location of the Council of Trent, birth place of the Counter Reformation.

Ahhhh you know the holidays are fast approaching when suddenly every supermarket has stacks upon stacks of Panettone narrowing its aisles. It's tasty, it's cheap, and it's totally necessary for dessert on Christmas and New Years.

Bagpipes or Zampognari:
When you imagine Jingle Bells being played here, what do you hear? An Accordion maybe? Not so! Tradition has the "Zampognari", or bagpipes, as the Christmas instrument. Legend says that shepherds once played for the Virgin Mary. So Now each year shepherds from mountain towns have their own pilgrimages, where they visit the piazzas of Rome, shrines to Mary, and they play their town's customary songs (not Jingle Bells).