Before the Befana
The Befana arrives on the night of 5 January – an old, witch-like woman who travels across Italy on a broomstick, filling childrens’ socks with sweets and presents if they’ve been good, or coal if they’ve been bad.
Befana and the Epiphany are celebrated across Italy, but there some regional variations. I spent the holiday in Cassino with Valeriano’s family, and was confused when I heard them talking about “pasquetta”.
“But isn’t pasquetta Easter Monday?” I asked
“In Cassino we celebrate Pasquetta Epifania – pasquetta on the evening before the Befana. Tonight we’ll see if we can find the band.”
Although I’m generally keen to experience local traditions, initially I wasn’t too enthusiastic about the idea of staying out late for pasquetta. It was absolutely freezing – gelido – and I was quite tempted to stay inside, curled up on the sofa. But in the end Valeriano convinced me to come out, to join his friends for a drink and a search for the pasquetta band.
At midnight we were roaming the streets of Cassino, shivering. The cold in Cassino is particularly unpleasant; you can feel it in your bones. We weren’t exactly sure where the band was, but as the streets were more or less deserted, we thought we should be able to hear them even from a distance. But we saw them before we heard them – a large group of cloaked figures gliding past the end of the street – and rushed off in pursuit.
The pasquetta band wear long, purplish cloaks that look black in the dark, emblazoned with a picture of the Befana. Every year, on the afternoon of 5 January, they gather in Cassino and walk the streets until late at night. Every few blocks the brass band stops outside a palazzo and plays a song, sung by the band and a few hangers-on. Traditionally, the residents of the palazzo come out into the street and give the band leftover food and drink from the festive season, giving them fuel for their long, cold march through the city. The band then continues on its way, and the same routine is repeated again and again throughout the night.
The video above – pasquetta in 2011 – gives you some idea, though the crowd is significantly bigger than the pasquetta I experienced. Perhaps it was filmed earlier in the evening, in a more central part of town.
As we followed the band throughout the empty streets of Cassino, I was struck by the futile, even slightly melancholy nature of the tradition. I’d been told that traditionally, the band was given food and drink, but for the time that we followed, we didn’t see anyone come out of their homes. No food, no drink. I think everyone could have done with a drink. The band plodded on, stopping every few minutes to play the same, repetitive song to a rapidly dwindling audience. The first time I heard the song, it seemed pleasant, rousing. But after half an hour in the freezing cold, it had become almost mournful.
Partly because I kept pestering him with questions he couldn’t answer, Valeriano started chatting with a member of the band. He asked him a question about the origins of the tradition, and why they were doing it. The band member didn’t really answer the question, but responded with a vague reflection, and a comment on how the band had once covered Cassino in its entirety. Now the town was bigger, they stuck to the centre.
Even those born and bred and Cassino – even those who actively take part in the tradition – don’t seem to know how it began, or why people do it. It’s tradition for tradition’s sake.
Perhaps the answer lies in the one thing that we do know. The tradition pre-dates the Second World War. The war that destroyed large parts of the town and its surroundings. Walking through the town today, it’s hard to find a trace of anything pre-1950. Given the devastation caused by the war, it’s not surprising that people cling to one of the few old things that remains. It may not have an obvious purpose, and it may not be particularly enjoyable for those who participate, but at least it’s something that’s survived.
At 1:30am the band was still going strong. There weren’t many people watching now, though a few residents had decided to pursue the band in the warmth and comfort of their cars, driving through the town at a snail’s pace. Following in a car seemed absurd, but following on foot was starting to become an ordeal. Frozen to the bone, Valeriano and I went home.
When I woke up late the next morning, I found that the Befana had visited (in the form of Valeriano’s father) – a sock stuffed with Kinder chocolate hung from my door. I hope that all members of the pasquetta band also got rewarded, in some way or another. After their long walk through the freezing streets, they certainly deserved to indulge on the 6th…