22d-Growing up Italian-American: La Befana? Who is that?

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La Befana receiving the Three Wise Men at her home. In Italian folklore she is the bringer of gifts to children on Epiphany.

Introduction

When I was a child my maternal Grandma Josie and Grandpa Sam never discussed Christmas observances in Italy. We had the rich traditions of the Italian-American communities in Wilmerding, Pennsylvania and Dyker Heights, Brooklyn, New York to draw on.  All I did know was what I learned in religious instruction classes at St. Bernadette’s Shrine Church:  that the feast of Epiphany on January 6th is when children in Europe receive their presents.

 

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Cheery images of Santa Claus were part of my childhood Christmases.

 The Three Wise Men and Epiphany involved a different level of gift giving in my mind.  Santa Claus also had a part in my childhood. He was a jolly delivery man who I never equated with anything other than someone who brought the gifts the elves made in their North Pole Workshop.  Santa existed at the popular level and the Three Wise Men at a higher level.  But the two never connected for me as being the same.  Epiphany was a feast day and something sacred.  It pertained to God and therefore deserved a serious and quiet reverence.

This is how I grew up understanding the difference. I’m sure a religious teacher would find flaws in this but there was little consideration or discussion about it.  Santa Claus and the Three Wise Men co-existed in the glittering and beautiful world of the entire Christmas Holiday.  The Sisters who taught me never commented on Santa Claus.  They gave us small presents each year like a prayer card, a pen, or some candy.  They reminded us that we received a gift each morning when we woke up and were blessed with another day of life.  Good health, a house to live in, food to eat, and playmates were some of the gifts the Sisters taught us that God gives us every day.  Christ was the ultimate gift for all time.  When I looked at it that way Santa Claus never took a superior position in my childhood imagination.

So how did Italian children celebrate Christmas and Epiphany?

Since I do not know how my maternal Grandpa Sam experienced Christmas as a child in Agropoli I did some research on gift giving in Italy during Epiphany.

What I learned is a complete surprise! Santa Claus has been popular in Italy since the end of WWII.  He is called Babbo Natale which means something like Daddy Christmas (Babbo=Dad and Natale=Christmas).  Italian children, though, have a unique bringer of gifts on Epiphany that is all their own.  Her name is La Befana.  She’s a kindly old woman bringing a basket of gifts.  But I took pause as I read on.  I thought, “How cool is this?  Here’s an older woman bringing gifts.”  Then I had to think a little more because of my reaction to imagery of La Befana:  she flies on a broom through the sky.

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22c-Merry Christmas!

To our readers and subscribers,

We wish you and your family a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

With best wishes,

EmilyAnn Frances May

Sam Serrapede

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Father Christmas and the glass Christmas tree are from the collection of keepsakes and collectibles my late mother, Emily L. Serrapede left to me.

22b-Dyker Heights Christmas Lights 2015: Let the light shine!

Every year before Christmas, I make a pilgrimage of sorts to my childhood neighborhood of Dyker Heights.  There I see the extravagant, over-the-top display of Christmas lights and decorations that adorn the mini-mansions and homes in this neighborhood.  It is also a time that I feel a special message come to me as I walk the streets, absorb the mood, and reflect on the impressions I receive .  Each year the experience is completely different.

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The first effect of seeing so many softly colored lights against the dark of night is a sense of euphoria.  The world is completely different and as I walk closer to the heart of Dyker Heights in the 80 Streets, there is a temporary lapse of all sense of past and future.  Every sense is focused on the present moment.

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The ordinary becomes extraordinary.  Trees that light up the night suddenly seem a possibility.

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Even the mini-mansions are transformed into castles where anyone can live like a prince or princess in a happily-ever-after land.

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22a-Serrapere family of Wilmerding: The Anniversary Photo at Angie’s Pizzeria

Cosimo and Anna Maria Serrapere at their 50th Wedding Anniversary dinner in 1959.

Have you ever gone to an old school luncheonette, family owned restaurant in the neighborhood or a famous eatery where photos of families and celebrities from yesteryear hang on the walls?  As a child I sometimes wondered who these people were.  It was easy to identify the famous people because they always autographed their photos.  Since most of the other photos lacked any captions my curiosity was never satisfied.  I wanted to know the story told by the photo and why the people in it looked so happy.  Of course once the meal was brought to the table, I forgot all about things like that since I got caught up in the present, the good food and the conversation going on around me.  If I persisted in being a pest about the photo, an Aunt or Grandparent would give me a nickel or a dime so I could busy myself with selecting a song from the jukebox.

Antoinette Serrapere has shared a family photo with me from her Grandparent’s Wedding Anniversary celebrated in 1959.  The family got together at Angie’s Pizzeria in Wilmerding, Pennsylvania for an afternoon dinner.  Mr. and Mrs. Serrapere gave a copy of the photo to the original owner of the Pizzeria.  When Angie sold the establishment to the current owners, the photo remained on the wall.  It is still there today.  I thought it would be good to share the photo with our blog readers.  Every picture tells a story and so does this one.  Thanks to Antoinette’s help the story behind the photo and details about some of the family members appear in this posting.

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