Up to sixty years ago, the predominant culture in the Como countryside, as in much of Italy, was that of the ‘contadino’ – the peasant farmer – engaged with family in a struggle for survival ever open to the vicissitudes of fortune. The contadino’s year was dominated by the agricultural cycle punctuated with periods of plenty or paucity, activity or sloth, with family life providing moments of joy or sorrow. This culture was enriched over time by fables, legends and folklore encapsulating aspects of the contadino’s wisdom gained from acute environmental awareness and sustained through an ignorance attributable to their necessarily restricted focus on survival. Nowadays, that culture is dead but it has bequeathed a rich legacy of customs, rituals, local cuisine and artisan crafts. Its folklore and rituals provide even the most urbane of us with a link to our distant past, to mystical times when fundamental issues determining man’s fate could only be resolved through magic and fantasy. So it is that our ancestors, when perceiving the first signs of nature reawakening as the sun seemed to regain some power, celebrated the season by the symbolic burning of all the ills and misfortune of the old year in the hope that this cleared the way for better luck in the year to come. This is the festival of the Giubiana – and it is celebrated today in many towns across Como and Brianza on the last Thursday of January (although some towns celebrate it on the following Saturday to accommodate the modern rhythms of our industrial society).
This Thursday the Festa della Giubiana will be celebrated by burning an over-sized human effigy on a massive bonfire after conducting a symbolic trial and sentencing. Participants will then set to feasting with a specific local dish made of Milanese risotto (risotto flavoured with saffron) and a particular sausage called ‘luganega’. On Lake Como, the Giubiana will be ceremonially tried, sentenced and burnt in Varenna at 20.30 and in Bellagio on Saturday at 20.00. The most spectacular celebration takes place in Canzo on Thursday with another sizeable celebration also on Thursday in Cantu. Albavilla also has a long tradition of celebrating the Giubiana but on Saturday joined also by celebrations in Barni and Civenna. Most celebrations start from around 20.00.
The origins of the festival seem to date from when the Celts from Gaul had taken over from the Iron Age Golasecca culture from the 3rd to 2nd century BCE. There are various versions of the legend behind the celebration but the most common recounts how a mother outwitted an old witch. The witch, driven by hunger at the time of year when stores are depleted and nothing grows, had been forced to roam at night looking to capture and eat young children. The mother decided to lay a trap for the witch by cooking up a massive pot of risotto including the local sausage – luganega. She left the pot on her window sill. The delicious smells tempted the witch who settled down to eat her fill. The risotto was so delicious that the witch was still eating as the sun rose. Unfortunately the witch was as sensitive to sun as Dracula and so perished due to her greed. The mother had liberated the whole community from the fear of the witch and the sacrifice of their young children to her hunger. With the witch destroyed, the ills of the old year died with her and all could hope for better fortune through the year to come.
The most elaborate Festa della Giubiana is held in Canzo with a long list of characters playing their part in the four act drama – the trial, sentencing, execution and celebration. The cast list in local dialect represents a rich variety of mythical sources and gives a good indication of the bizarre not to say surrealistic character of the event. It includes:
- Giubiana – an elderly figure representing all that was bad in the past year
- Anguana – an aquatic fairy from the district of Canzo known as the Ceppo dell’Angua
- Ul Cervun (Il Cervo) – A giant stag in the figure of the Nordic/Celtic god of the forest, Cernunnos.
- L’Omm Selvadech (L’uomo selvatico) – The wild man, a figure from Alpine mythology.
- L’Urzu (L’Orso) – A bear representing the instinctive forces of nature that must be tamed.
- Ul Casciadur (Il Cacciatore) – The hunter who captures and tames the bear and teaches it to dance.
- I Diaul (I Diavoli) – The devils who serenade the Giubiana
- Il Boja (Il Boia) – The executioner who represents the condemnation of the bad.
- I Cilostar – characters who carry candelabra on their heads symbolising the good that will conquer the bad.
- I Strij picitt – Witches who scare the children and try to save their companion, Giubiana.
- I Bun e I Gramm (I buoni e cattivi) – The good and the bad symbolised by children wearing either white or black.
- Barbanegra – The town’s wizard.
- Ul Pastur (Il pastore) – Masked representation of the shepherd’s craft.
- Ul Buschiroo (Il Boscaiolo) – As with Ul Pastur but for woodsmen.
- L’Aucatt di caus pers – The Milanese lawyer sent to defend lost causes i.e. the Giubiana.
- La Cumar da la Cumtrada – The friend of Giubiana who reads out her testimony in court.
- I Pumpier (I Pompieri) – The fireman dressed in historic costume on bicycles with fire fighting equipment from the 1800s.
- Gli Scarenej – Representatives from the nearby allied comune of Scarenna.
In Cantu their Giubiana is not an elderly witch but a decidedly beautiful young woman. This marked divergence in tradition apparently stems from the city’s betrayal by a young woman during the conflict between Como and Milan from 1118 to 1127 – a war in which Cantu had allied with Milan. One night during the war a young woman was heard knocking at the gates of the town begging entry and seeking asylum from the marauding Comaschi. She was granted asylum and entrusted with a set of keys to the town gates. She treacherously handed these keys over to the Comaschi who entered and burnt Cantu to the ground. However when the fortunes of war turned in Milan’s favour, the woman was captured, put to trial and executed by being burnt alive.
Another of the notable celebrations locally is that in Albavilla, a small town just about 6 kilometres to the east of Como on the route to Lecco. Their celebrations are organised by an active group intent on maintaining awareness of local folk culture. This year they will introduce a detail that updates the idea of ridding the old year of its pains. Participants will be invited to make a brief note of any personal negative issues from the past year. These notes will be thrown into a communal bin which will then be put on the bonfire along with the Giubiana. Following fireworks all will celebrate with a plateful of risotto with non-vegetarians adding luganega. Albavilla’s festival is on Saturday evening.
The Festa della Giubiana may well herald the first signs of the start of the natural cycle, but in spite of the sun showing signs that it will regain its strength, the winter is far from over. In fact, we are now coming up to what is known as the three days of the blackbird (the merlo) which traditionally are the coldest in the year – and there is another story from local folklore at the heart of why people to this day refer to the days of the blackbird. Click here to find out more!
If however, the bizarre sound of the Canzo festival attracts you, do not miss out on the truly anarchic, surrealistic street theatre which is the Carnival in Schignano. I cannot recommend this festival enough for its effortless invocation of misrule in a beautiful mountain setting. The organisers of all these festivals are to be complimented for their efforts in keeping alive local traditions, and in the case of Schignano, associated local crafts such as mask making.