The Italian peninsula is, needless to say, known worldwide for its rich and delicious food tradition: North to South, in every small village and province you can find many different specialities to satisfy every taste.
But this is old news, and something that you’ve heard before.
However, what you might not know is that on the 6th of January many people in Italy eat… coal.
But first, let’s take a step back. This story begins with an old witch flying across the Italian skies on the night between the 5th and the 6th of January: she’s the Befana, a lady who travels on a broomstick and stops in each home to give small gifts and sweets to children. According to the tradition, children who have been well-behaved would receive candies, chocolates and fruit, while those who had been disobedient or naughty would just receive coal.
The literal translation for ‘coal’ is carbone, and it defines the black combustible mineral substance consisting of carbonized vegetable matter, which is used as a fuel. But once a year it can mean something else: the carbone dolce refers to a crunchy, sugary black snack, prepared with powder sugar, egg white, lemon juice and colouring. Nowadays, the distinction among presents is luckily over, and the carbone dolce (‘sweet coal’) has become a popular gift to give on Epiphany day, or l’Epifania as it’s called in Italy.
In the United States, Spain and Canada there is Coal candy, or Candy coal, a confectionery product associated with the Christmas holiday and the tradition of giving lumps of coal instead of presents to children; it can also be flavoured with licorice. In Japan, the same candy is known as “kaitaname“.
In Spain, the three Wise Men appear during the night to bring presents and sweets to children; Spanish kids have to be aware of coal too, because if they have been naughty during the year, there might be the risk they receive this sweet candy too.
Although in Europe the 6th of January is more related to the Three Wise Men, the Befana, also known as the Good Witch of Christmas, is still part of the Christian history: according to that tradition, she was an old lady who, on that night, refused to indicate to the three strangers the right way to reach the young Christ, who was born a few days before. Regretting her act, she kept thinking about them, and eventually went looking for them with a basket filled with bread and sweets, trying to find them and Jesus too.
On her way, she kept giving parts of her bread loaf to any baby she met, hoping he might be Christ. Today she is still wandering, looking for baby Jesus through Italy, and leaving little presents for children along the way.
- Beatrice Mencattini, Per i più cattivi: il carbone dolce, available here (consulter on January 4th, 2018)
- Luca Sessa, Calza della Befana homemade: come preparare il carbone dolce, available here (consulter on January 4th, 2018
Written by Carolina Quaranta – Schuman Trainee at the Terminology Coordination Unit of the European Parliament. Completed a Master in Public and Political Communication in the University of Torino, Italy; communication specialist and journalist.