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Celebrating Carnival in Italy

Have you ever been in Italy in late January to the end of February?  Have you ever noticed confetti sprinkled everywhere on the streets?  Children wearing what seem to be Halloween costumes for days on end and thinking “what is going on”?  

Welcome to the season of Carnevale!  

Italians have a way of making sure that there is an event, “something special”, to celebrate in every season, if not every week.  This coming from an Italian American who left NYC to move to Rome and I swear there are “festivals” all the time.  I guess it is the concept of “la dolce vita”, but what exactly makes Carnevale special and why should you visit Italy during this period of time.

First some history.  Some say Carnevale was first celebrated in 1094 in Venice.  Others say that the Carnival of Venice was started from a victory of the Venice Republic against the Patriarch of Aquileia, Ulrico di Treven in the year 1162. In celebration of his victory, Venetians started to dance and party in San Marco Square. Presumably, it wasn’t until 1296 that the City of Venice actually recognized it as an annual event, but as they would say in Italian basta (enough) with the history, let’s talk about the fun of it!

It is a celebration directly tied to the tradition of Lent and Easter.  I think more people are familiar with Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras) than Carnevale, except for knowing people wear masks in Venice during this period.  Yet it is the whole country and every age group which dresses up, wearing colorful, sometimes extravagant, costumes and not for just one day but for about two weeks, which means two weeks of parties, merry and fun!  I have seen children actually going to school in costumes and throwing confetti everywhere day after day during the period of Carnevale.  It creates a magical, fun, whimsical time in the whole country, from Venice to Sicily and everywhere in between.  

Rome is not as well-known as Venice but it is really worth visiting Rome during this period as the city hosts its own type of Parade.  It was not until the 17th Century that Romans started to embrace the tradition of Carnevale. At that time, Via del Corso which was one of the most important streets in Rome and is still the starting point for the Carnevale parade today.  People stroll down the street in extravagant costumes to Piazza del Popolo.  Carnevale itself lasts for about 10 days and the city is filled with musical and theatrical performances in addition to the wearing of costumes and throwing of confetti (did I say everywhere and at everyone?).  I tend to keep a mask in my pocket, you never know when you might fall into a party!

An interesting fact about Carnevale in Italy was traditionally it was a period where roles were reversed between men and women, the rich and the poor.  Today, I would say it is a time where people put their daily routine on hold to enjoy the humor in life, to be free to laugh together and enjoy life.

Oh, and of course, no festival would be complete without some super delicious Italian food specifically cooked for this period.  Frappe and Frittelle are the specialities of Carnevale.  They are delicious fried dough covered in powdered sugar, try not to wear black in this period or everyone will know how much you love these desserts.  They are sort of impossible to stop eating!  

There is a lot of debate as to the origin of the name Carnevale but the one that seems to be the most popular states that the word comes from the Latin expression, carnem levare, which means “taking away meat,” and somehow over time became “carne vale” which literally means “goodbye meat” which was associated with Ash Wednesday, the first day Lent.  From what I understand, in ancient times people gave up meat for Lent, I gave up chocolate as an American, waiting for the Easter Bunny to help me out, but that is another story.  

If you are in Rome for the Carnevale, which this year starts on February 20, make sure you don’t miss some of the parades. The rest of the time, you can sober up with a tour of ancient Rome!

La Befana

Italian Traditions and Holidays: La Befana

What is your favorite part of Christmas?  Getting gifts, giving gifts, decorating the street, Christmas songs, Christmas sweaters (no you did not say you enjoy them, haha), or hanging your stocking near the fireplace.  I grew up on the North East Coast and it was tradition to light a fire and after the tree was all decorated, we kids each picked a spot on the fireplace where we were sure Santa could fill our stocking to the max.  Now I live in Italy and there is something very different about Christmas Stocking and it includes a Witch!

If you know anything about Italy, one thing you know for sure is there are lots of Holidays, most related to something holy and so is Befana… somehow.  January 6th is in the Catholic Religion called the Epiphany.  Epiphany commemorates the first two occasions of Jesus’s divinity which according to Christian belief, was for Western Christianity when the three kings (also known as wise men or Magi or three wise men) visited infant Jesus in Bethlehem with gifts.  The second, according to Eastern Christianity is when Jesus baptized John the Baptist baptized in the River Jordan.  The day is also known as the Three Kings Day.

Here in Italy, it also represents the day of Befana, who is an old woman who delivers gifts (mainly chocolate) to children throughout Italy on Epiphany Eve if they were good, if not they get a lump of coal, just as Santa does on Christmas Eve.  Some claim she sweeps the floor before she leaves as a symbol to sweep away the previous year’s problems.  My mom used to have a kitchen witch which looked identical to Befana. 

A recent movie was produced about la Befana to watch with your kids!

As we in America leave milk and cookies for Santa, Italian tradition is to leave some wine.  I think there was a time my dad left Whiskey for Santa, only as older children, we realized find my father adored whiskey.  There are many stories around La Befana.  Have you ever seen the “little drummer boy”? Maybe with that one, I am dating myself, but the Romans kill the lamb of a peasant boy and he follows “the star” to Bethlehem to ask for a miracle.  He was without a gift and so played a song for baby Jesus and the lamb is resurrected.  Such a great Christmas story, I do not know if it even exists anymore, but there is a story about La Befana that is similar. 

Another Christian legend takes a slightly darker tone as La Befana was an ordinary woman with a child whom she greatly loved. However, her child died, and her resulting grief maddened her. Upon hearing news of Jesus being born, she set out to see him, delusional that he was her son. She eventually met Jesus and presented him with gifts to make him happy. The infant Jesus was delighted, and he gave La Befana a gift in return; she would be the mother of every child in Italy.

I guess I was a good “boy” this year as I did get a stocking full of Italian Chocolate and it made me smile.  I have the pleasure of living in Italy, but I would recommend that whoever is reading this, don’t just think of Italy as a summer destination, there are so many traditions throughout the year which make the country amazing which leaves you with an authentic experience. Did you get anything from Befana? A recent movie was produced about la Befana to watch with your kids!

There are many interesting songs and filastrocche about Befana. One of the most famous is “La Befana Vien di Notte” (The Befana Comes at Night).

Think of Italy as an all-year destination, see it in all its different personalities.  Let Italy surprise you and if you are a good boy or girl, maybe Befana will bring you chocolate next year.