Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Ancient Ritual of Panevin

On January 5th the ancient ritual of "panevin" (bread and wine) is still observed in many areas of Italy, particularly the Veneto and Friuli regions.

Originally panevin celebrated the solstice with fire that, according to the Julian calendar, fell on December 25th. Because it also coincided with the birth of Jesus, the celebration was moved to twelve days later, on the eve of the Epiphany.

The panevin consists of a pile of dead branches, brush,  wood and whatever else was once used but now destined to be burned. It is piled eight to ten meters high and a puppet, similar to an old lady (vecia) is often placed on top. This vecia is guilty of all of last year's calamities and so destined to be burnt.

People gather around to eat pinza (local cake) and drink vin brulè (mulled wine) while watching the smoke and sparks carried by the wind. If the smoke and sparks go south or west, this year's crop will be plentiful. If they travel north or east, the harvest will be poor.

After the bonfire, the children will anxiously await the arrival of La Befana. Christian legend had it that Befana was approached by the Three Wise Men a few days before the birth of the infant Jesus. They asked for directions to where the Son of God was, as they had seen his star in the sky, but she did not know. She provided them with shelter for a night, as she was considered the best housekeeper in the village, with the most pleasant home. 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.