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La Giubiana: a curious tradition linked to the last Thursday of January in Northern Italy

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A great fire that will illuminate the darkness, with the hope that it will burn well and quickly so as to drive away the winter and propitiate the year that has just begun. The traditional ceremony, which this year falls just today, on January 30th, includes a large bonfire where a straw puppet dressed in rags (the Giubiana) is burned, which represents the malaise of winter and the troubles of the past year. The Giübiana, or feast of Giobia is a traditional recurrence very popular in northern Italy, especially in the regions of Piedmont and Lombardy.

The tradition has a very ancient origin. From time immemorial, in the agricultural world, the year was marked by periodic recurrences, which accompanied the rhythms of the seasons and which, in some way, allowed people to feel part of the cycles of nature. Through celebrations and anniversaries, the cycles of nature were symbolically revived, in particular the passage between the dead seasons and those of spring awakening. In the colder period of the year, in late January, it was customary to burn the old year symbolically, to hope that the new year would be more auspicious and full of new crops and many fruits.
The name itself, Giubiana, moreover seems to refer to ancient propitiatory rituals, much older than the spread of Christianity. A name that changes according to the territory where the rite is celebrated: Gibiana, Giubiana or Giübiana in Brianza and in the province of Como, Giobbia in Piedmont, Giöeubia in the Varesotto, Zobiana in Trentino and in the area of Brescia. The name could also derive from Joviana, that is the goddess of fertility Juno, but also from the father of the gods Jupiter, in Latin “Jupiter-Jovis”, from which the adjective Giovia, and therefore Giobia, and this is also the reason for Thursday. In addition, according to popular folklore, Thursday was also the day of the week when witches performed their satanic rites.
With spread of the Christian religion, references to the pagan gods were put aside, but the original name of Giubiana has been preserved over time. In the medieval centuries, popular narrative has created various legends and countless popular stories.
In folklore, Giubiana has thus become a female figure, sometimes an old woman, other times a witch, to be symbolically chased away together with the cold of winter. The most characteristic element of her celebration remained the large bonfire, which is still perceived by everyone still today as a symbol of renewal and restarting the new year.
According to a local legend, in the seventh century, Giubiana was a faithless castellan who betrayed the town of Cantù for love, in the war between Milan and Como, then being put into the public pillory by paying her guilt in the flames, sentenced as a witch. According to other legends, she could be traced back to the Celtic rites of the first century AD, when braided wicker puppets were set on fire by Druid priests to propitiate the favor of the gods in battle or to obtain benevolent influences in the seasons of sowing and harvesting. Finally, others attribute the current bonfires to those of Christian priests who in the fourth century AD. pagan deities symbolically burned.

Thanks to different popular beliefs, we also know what the Giubiana looked like: an old, thin, witch with very, very long legs and red stockings. Someone told that she lived in the woods and thanks to her long legs, she never set foot on the ground, but jumped from tree to tree. So she watched everyone who entered the woods and frightened them, especially children. As story goes, on the last Thursday of January, she used to go looking for a child to eat. To protect her baby, a mother decided to set her a trap: she prepared a large pot full of yellow risotto (with saffron) with luganega (sausage), and placed it on the window sill.
The scent was delicious, mouth-watering. The Giubiana jumped out of the woods towards the pot, and began to eat, little by little, all the contents of the huge pot of delicious risotto. The risotto was so much, and yet it was so good, that the ravenous Giubiana did not notice the passing of time. She did not notice that the sun, which kills the witches, was about to rise. By the time the Giubiana finished all the risotto, the first ray of sunshine had now dawned. She was thus pulverized by the sunlight, and from that day all the children were safely. So, to remember that story at the end of January, risotto with luganega is prepared and a puppet is burned with the appearance of the old witch.

According to a slightly more “horror” version, a mom took a doll and filled it with knives and scissors, then put it on the bed, instead of her daughter. At midnight, when they heard the footsteps of the Giubiana, the frightened little girl huddles close to her mother, while she heard the witch climbing the steps and entering the room. The fierce Giubiana in a moment swallows the doll, thinking of eating the little girl. They heard a scream, and when the mother goes to her daughter room, found the body of the Giubiana in tatters, because of the knives and scissors.
In any case, still today, during the Giubiana festival, risotto with luganega is eaten and mulled wine is drunk!


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