Three cheers for wine-drinking, candlelit women
Nollaig na mBan is just one of several festivals that salute women at this time of year
Emma Prunty with Maeve and Josie ready for the Santa Lucia procession at an Ikea store outside Florence.
Befana figures clutch stockings with the word ‘coal’ for those who have been naughty.
The Befana brings presents at the Epiphany for children who have been good.
Our home has been in Italy since 2015 and as I was packing our bags for our trip back to Dublin just before Christmas, I realised I had to organise a brand new, “other” Christmas before we left. Never mind the stocking waiting to be put up and filled by Santa in Dublin, I also needed to fill another one with sweets and goodies for our girls for the morning of January 6th. We will be back in Italy by then – in fact they had pleaded that we would be – as that is the feast day of the Befana, an Italian witch who traditionally does the present-giving in many parts of the country.
The Befana is a most Italian kind of character. She is a (generally nice) witch or old woman who met the three kings following the star to Bethlehem. As one version of the story goes, when she got word of the big news she went off to organise a present for the baby Jesus but the kings weren’t going to hang around and they took off.
To make up for being left out of the most famous Christmas gift-giving ever, she has been giving presents to children every Epiphany since – well, to children living in Italy that is.
Unlike Santa Claus, she expects a glass of wine after she lands on the roof and she might still give a piece of coal to anyone who has been naughty. (After quickly consulting with local friends on how to manage this, I learned that you can buy a piece of plastic coal in the shops).
Christmas has plenty of larger-than-life figures: Santa Claus/St Nicholas, the baby Jesus, the three kings, and the shepherds and angels, all of whom were presumably male. But apart from Mary, we don’t associate many women with the season.
My little family of four has adopted a few, however, as we have absorbed traditions from the countries we have lived in over the past decade.
Presents every day
We lived in Oslo for seven years so our girls basically grew up as Norwegians. From December 1st, they would open presents every day on our homemade advent calendar, listen to Norwegian songs (some okay, some bad) and bake all the right things. Every year they also somehow ignored the fact that all their school friends expected Santa to arrive at their doors on Christmas Eve but our version of Santa showed up later that night and popped down the chimney into our chimney-less third-floor apartment to drop off his gifts.
I was fortunate to fall in with the Oslo Irish women’s association, a wonderful group of kind souls, some of whom had moved there to be with their Norwegian sweethearts before I was born and others more recent economic migrants.
They decided to bring to life in Oslo the old Irish tradition of getting the women and other domestics out of the house on Nollaig na mBan or Little Women’s Christmas. It’s a lovely tradition and we did not hesitate to celebrate it and raise a toast to ourselves every January 6th in the main Irish pub of Oslo. Even at those prices.
Of all the Norwegian traditions, we loved the celebration of Santa Lucia on December 13th the most. Dear old St Lucy is an Italian saint but arguably just as popular in Scandinavia as in the parts of Italy that still commemorate her.
Crown of candles
In Norway every year, kindergarten children take part in a procession at daybreak, which means about 8.45 am. Each child wears a white dress tied up with silver tinsel and one lucky girl is chosen to wear a crown of candles (usually battery-operated though we knew of one incident of hair catching fire). They walk around, singing the lovely Lucia song and afterwards eat some special Lucia biscuits. It’s a beautiful ritual of light in the midst of darkness and our two daughters loved it.
After we had moved to Italy, I thought it would be nice to keep up the tradition. That is how this photograph above came about. It shows me and my Irish-Canadian daughters dressed for a Santa Lucia procession at the local Ikea store outside Florence.
This is organised every year by the reliable local Swedish mums who on the day roped me in to wear a white dress too. They then put me at the front of the procession, which wended its way through the store against the usual shopping flow, shunting the goggle-eyed Italian shoppers (and their camera-phones) to the side as we passed.
It was not an experience I would have pictured ever happening 20 years ago, nor do I plan to repeat it. But our girls had a blast and felt themselves back in Norway again and, even though this was a Swedish affair, that was close enough.
Emma Prunty from Dublin has been abroad for more than 20 years and currently lives with her husband and daughters in Florence. She blogs about life and language in Tuscany at washyourlanguage.com.