by Denise Graham
My Nonna was born Jenny Giovanelli on January 6th, (the Epiphany) 1889. She immigrated from Italy to the United States, married, had five children and nine grandchildren. Jenny and her children lived together in a compound of four houses and a little farm just outside of Bridgeville PA.
These are my memories of the annual birthday celebration for Nonna and the visit from Befana. I have shared this experience with many people, even those who are of Italian heritage. In these many years few know of Befana, and none have had a visit from the mysterious woman. Possibly because my Nonna’s birthday was on the Epiphany Befana found her way across the Atlantic to visit Jenny’s home.
The day before January 6th, my aunts would descend on my grandmother’s house to prepare the delicious and exotic to me foods for the feast. The unusual shape and texture of tripe being cleaned was interesting, though not a food I ever considered trying. I must have been missing a delicious dish because the restaurant Arpino’s in Mt. Lebanon serves tripe each Monday. My aunts were an organized and tuned human assembly line in making Ravioli stuffed with spinach, meat and ricotta cheese. Flour sprinkles everywhere on the table. Long thin sheets of pasta rolled by hand covered the six hole ravioli trays. Perfectly sealed with scalloped edges there was no chance of breaking open during cooking.
My great Zio Tony would go hunting in the morning of the party, and if fortunate to bag a pheasant for dinner – great. If not then it was chicken in the oven instead. Tony also would contribute bottles of his home made wine. On this occasion of his sisters birthday he would bring out the “good stuff”. Or so his nephews would chide him that he kept the best for himself the rest of the year.
When dinner time arrived the table was covered in table cloths which came out only on special occasions. The house was hot and windows steamy from the boiling of pasta, polenta, and baking of pheasant, chicken, breads and sweets. At least twenty family and friends filled the little house with laughter and the language of the “old country.”
The group of cousins entertained ourselves in the living room while the kitchen was cleaned and organized after dinner in preparation for the creamy smooth white icing cake and birthday song. We rarely ventured to the adults because this was a delightful day to push the furniture aside and compete with one another in our tumbling skills.
Each of our parents would appear occasionally to tell us to “settle down,” in their fear of one of us bleeding or breaking something.
Then suddenly the phone would ring and we would be told that Befana had arrived. She was at the Esso gas station a block away. The door and steamy windows would be opened wide to the refreshing cold night air. Befana’s arrival was preceded by a barrage of shelled walnuts, almonds, filberts and hazelnuts flung through the open windows. While we cousins were busy collecting the nuts, Befana appeared in the kitchen, we could hear the commotion her arrival made by the laughter and spoken Italian among the adults.
Befana was dressed oddly by our standards. She would be traveling the globe this night and was prepared for all types of weather. Her legs were covered in thick stockings and boots to keep her feet warm.
She dressed in layers with skirts and shirts and sweaters peeking out around her hemline, collar and wrists. Her hands were covered in two pair of gloves. The inner glove soft and snowy white. Several big scarves covered her head and one circled her neck covering most of her face. A white sack was bulging with unknown contents. Though Befana’s dress was unfamiliar we were acquainted with the bright rouge from our great Zia Fina’s cosmetics. Befana also had a strong scent of AVON.
The youngest of the cousins would stand at a distance looking half in wonderment of her appearance and half in fear and dread of approaching the mysterious traveler. The adults filled the room with encouragement to sit upon Befana’s lap. The oldest of the cousins chided the younger to not be a “sissy.”
Befana had a gift for each of us and with her white gloved hand she gently handed us a fat brown paper bag tightly folded closed.We could receive the gift only after a hastily placed cheek kiss was given to the old woman. With the last child happily discovering the sweet treats in their bag Befana departed for she had many more children to visit this night.