The festival of Giubiana, traditions in northern Italy
The Giubiana is a traditional celebration having great popularity in the northern Italian region of Lombardy, and particularly in Brianza, as well as in the region of Piedmont. During the last Thursday in January, bonfires are lit, on which the Giubiana (i.e. a puppet of an old witch) is burnt.
According to some, she is named after the ancient Roman God Jupiter, and this is why celebrations are held on Thursdays (“Giovedì”) in the Latin tradition the day of Jupiter. Furthermore, according to popular traditions, on Thursday nights (or Saturday nights) witches assembled for Sabbath.
In the days before the festival the villagers collect all that’s combustible (wood, hay, paper etc.), and put a pyre together. After a procession through the village street, the Giubiana is placed on the pyre and set on fire. The rite is both symbolic and propitiatory. The Giubiana is burnt to ashes to terminate the winter, so that the pyre flame is believed to predict an abundant harvest in the upcoming year.
There are different versions of the story: in the town where I was born the story of Giubiana is fairly different from the others which describe her as an old, ugly witch. The story I was told takes place in the city of Cantù.
In the XII century, the cities of Como and Milan were at war: Canturium (Cantù) was one of Milan’s allies, and it was under siege. They resisted many months, and the enemy could not find a way to breach the walls. One night in January a beautiful, innocent-looking girl knocked at a priest’s door. The priest, father Lorenzo, mistook her for the Virgin Mary and invited her in. The girl was so charming that she managed to steal the keys of the city: Cantù was conquered by Como, but in the end Milan won the war and freed the city. The traitor was then sentenced to death and burnt at the stake.
Every year, in the city of Cantù and small towns nearby a life-size puppet of an old woman is burnt. The puppet is a symbol of betrayal and deceit: it is said that if it burns completely and quickly, the harvest will be good.
The “Festa della Giubiana” did not, however, originate in the middle ages: it has very ancient roots and dates back to pre-christian times.
The name Giubiana could derive from latin ‘Joviana’, and thus from the cult of the roman goddess Juno. Others think it has to do with the god Jupiter, since the celebrations are held on thursdays, in italian “giovedì” (from Giove –Jupiter).
This celebration coincides with the roman festivity of “Feriae Sementivae”, or simply “Sementivae”, the festival of sowing.
It was held in honor of Ceres (the goddess of agriculture) and Tellus (Mother Earth). The initial half of the event was a festival in honor of Tellus which ran from January 24 through January 26. The festival honoring Ceres occurred one week later, starting February 2. The purpose of The Sementina dies was to pray for a good harvest.
In this festival to celebrate the beginning of the year, Fire and Light symbolize hope and rebirth, opposed to the darkness and the cold of winter.
In my town, children are encouraged to write or draw on a sheet of paper what scares them and place it on the pyre before it is lit. They are told that the purifying force of the fire will burn and banish their fears for good.