Burning the witch in a bonfire in Basiliano-Vissandone in Italy to celebrate a traditional Pignarul

Befana and Pignarul
Starting the new year with two great traditions 

Basiliano, Vissandone, Feletto/Italy (2017) – Our traditions tie us to the land we come from.
They are a reminder of your history and that we walk in the footsteps of our ancestors. We keep traditions because they keep us closer together. And like our ancestors we make sure we pass them on to the next generations. The year is full of traditions, starting with the New Year's celebration, an impressive firework to welcome the new year. Only a few days into the new year, the people in the northeast of Italy, in the Friaul region, celebrate not one but two traditions on the same day – the Befana and the Pignarul.​ On Epiphany's Eve, the evening of the Three Holy Kings, the Befana, a witch on a broomstick, "flies" from house to house to deliver gifts to the children. In the evening hours there is everywhere smoke to smell in the region. It's the time of the Pignarul. Huge bonfires are started all over this part of the country, burning big hay piles and of course the witch.
Women dressed as witches in Feletto, Italy for the celebration of La Befana
"La Befana" – The lovely witch brings candies to the kids
"La Befana", the lovely witch, got her name most likely from Epiphany, the celebration of the Three Kings' Day, a Christian feast day. According to an old tale the legend of Befana began thousands of years ago, when the Three Kings, Kaspar, Melchior and Balthasar, were on their way to the new-born Jesus Christ to bring their gifts, gold, incense and myrrh, to the child. A bright star showed them the way. In every village they passed, there were people who joined the Three Kings in their journey. Along the way, they arrived at the house of an old woman who wasn't going to accompany them. She claimed to be too busy with housework but promised to follow later when her work would be done. The next day the old woman regretted her mistake and ran after the Three Kings, with the broom and gifts in her hands. But she found no trace of the men or the star. As much as she searched, she didn't find the new-born Jesus. And having missed her opportunity to give her gifts with the Three Kings, the old women, now a witch, visits in the night between January 5th and 6th every house looking for kids to give presents to. "La Befana" fills prepared socks and boots of children who have been good all year long with candies, while she leaves "coal", black sugar rocks,  for the kids who haven't been so good. And since the witch used to be a good housekeeper she sometimes even sweeps the floor of the house she visits.

"The Befana", as the Italians call their traditional event, is celebrated throughout Italy. "La Befana" is an Italian icon today and very much loved not only by the kids. Even poems and songs are dedicated to the lovely witch, many different versions exist in all of Italy:


"La Befana vien di notte,
con le scarpe tutte rotte,
col vesito alla romana,
viva, viva La Befana"

"The Befana comes by night,
with her shoes all tattered and torn,
she comes dressed in the Roman way,
long live the Befana"
Burning the hay pile in Basiliano-Vissandone for the celebrationn of Pinarul
​​"The Pignarul" – The smoke of the huge bonfire predicts the quality of the new year
In the region Friuli-Venezia-Giulia "The Pignarul", with its Celtic origin, is also a very much appreciated tradition. Locals work days before the event on Epiphany's Eve to erect a huge pile made out of wood, tree branches and most of all big hay balls. On top of the pile they place a witch puppet as a symbol of the past. Some villages seem to be in competition with each other – even though nobody really admits to it – to build the highest pile for the Pignarul. The communities of Tarcento and Basiliano/Vissandone are known in the region for the best and highest Pignaruls. This year the Pignarul of Vissandone measured more than 80 feet (25 Meters). Many local organizations share not only the work of building up the pile but also to watch it by day and night in the days before Epiphany's Eve to make sure their record Pignarul won't get burned down before the event.

The burning down of the Pignarul is a big social gathering in the region. People come from everywhere to witness this unique spectacle once a year. And it is exciting to watch when the big hay pile is set on fire and the witch puppet on top is reached by the first flames. According to the traditional beliefs, with the witch burning down to ashes, the old year is over and the the new year has officially begun. And the smoke of the big fire will be used as an omen if the year will be good for harvesting. An old saying supports this belief:

"If the smoke goes west,
take your bags and leave for the world (run for the hills).
If the smoke goes east,
take your bags and go to the market (and sell your harvest)."

If this old quote would be taken literally by the locals, then Basiliano and Vissandone would be ghost towns in 2017, because the strong and ice cold wind carried the smoke of their fantastic Pignarul to the southwest which indicates that a difficult year will be ahead.  

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