La Giubiana: how to burn a witch in northern Italy

One of my memories as a child sees me on the balcony at my aunt’s house, looking down at a procession of people carrying a very tall puppet across the streets of the town where my dad grew up. The puppet is a woman, a terrible witch with long legs and red stockings; but the most notable of her features is the huge, long, crooked nose. I know her name: she’s la Giubiana.

I am frightened by her. Not because she’s a child-eating witch, or because I know what awaits her at the end of the procession. I am terrified of her looks: she is, after all, a huge, gigantic puppet. And I hate puppets: their fixed eyes with their fixed gaze, their frozen wood-carved smiles.

The Giubiana from my childhood is tall and terrifying. I hardly remember the bonfire that burns her at the end of the procession; the way she burns is a foretelling of what the new year will bring, or so they say.

L'inizio del rogo della Giubiana
The bonfire and the Giubiana.

I grew up with the solid conviction that every town in Italy had its own Giubiana to burn on the last Thursday of January. I just gave it for granted.

Little did I know that the Giubiana actually only lives in a couple of regions in northern Italy, Lombardia and Piemonte. She is known by many names, and all the versions seem to come from the Roman name of the god Jupiter: Giove, which is also where the Italian name for Thursday, giovedì, comes from.

Every town and every village has its own version of the story, and burns the Giubiana for different reasons. There is one thing that always stays the same: the risotto con la luganega, risotto with saffron and sausage, that everyone eats after the bonfire.

According to a local tale, the Giubiana used to live in the woods and enjoyed scaring the children. She also enjoyed eating the children and went looking for a nice child-based meal every last Thursday of January. One evening, a mother decided to trick the evil witch: she cooked a delicious risotto con la luganega and put it outside the window to lure her into eating it until sunrise came. The Giubiana fell for it and the first rays of the sun surprised her still eating the risotto: as most evil creatures do, she disappeared.

Corteo della Giubiana
The procession.

In Canzo, on the very northern border of that area north of Milan called Brianza, the last Thursday of January is all about the Giubiana. Long, red stockings can be found around the town’s historical center, the portico in the church’s square is decorated with red banners, a stage with a wooden throne appears, the townspeople wait expectantly for the trial.

And then it comes. A procession of people escorts the Giubiana through the little town, halting every now and then, a multitude of characters gradually adding to the crowd. When they reach the church’s square, everyone moves to the front, everyone wants to see and participate.

Il Bòja, the executioner, drags the Giubiana on the stage under the portico, he forces her to sit on the wooden throne on the side of the stage. The Giubiana is ugly, with a dark face, a humped back, and a long, crooked nose. Behind her, at the back of the stage, stand i Regiuu in a line: the elderly people of the town, who will decide the Giubiana’s fate in the end.

La Giubiana entra al processo
The Bòja takes the Giubiana to her trial in Canzo.

The trial begins. The Giubiana is deemed responsible for all the misfortunes of the previous year. There are characters who blame her for the cold spring, the arid summer, the rainy autumn. L’Urzu, the bear, tries to break her free, but il Casciadùr, the hunter, is ready to stop it. Anguana, the water fairy, and l’Òmm Selvadech, the wild man, stay among the audience and look.

The Giubiana’s lawyer steps in to defend her, the only character who speaks some Italian: all the others speak the local dialect. The Giubiana’s lawyer has come all the way from Milan to defend his client. Sadly for her, he is l’Aucatt di caus pèrs, the lawyer of the lost causes.

But her lawyer is not the only character to defend the Giubiana: at least a couple of women are on her side, and in the end, it’s la Cumàr da la Cuntrada, the neighboorhood’s gossipy lady, the one who reads the Giubiana’s last will.

I know what awaits me. You may burn me tonight; but doubt not: this year will bring hailstorm, this year will bring drought, this year will bring famine! And next year, on the last Thursday of January, I will be still here!

The trial ends with the final verdict: the Giubiana is found guilty. She will be taken to the stake, and then she will burn.

La Comare della Contrada al processo della Giubiana
The Cumàr da la Cuntrada reads the Giubiana’s last will.

The crowd starts its procession again, escorting the Giubiana through narrow alleys and on narrow bridges. Witch-like creaturesle Strij picitt, screech at the night sky while holding torches, the marching band plays a rather gloomy tune.

At the end of the procession, the Giubiana is put at the stake, and i Cilòstar, the candelabra holders, start the fire.

It’s night, it’s dark. The flames from the Giubiana’s bonfire light the faces of the onlookers: attentive eyes reflecting the red of the fire, cheeks warmed by the heat of the tall flames.

Il rogo della Giubiana
The bonfire.

Everyone watches, and it’s very quick actually. Just a few minutes of ferocious burning, then the Giubiana is but the burnt remnants of a puppet made of straw and old clothes.

Now’s time for the risotto con la luganega, which tastes even better if eaten with a glass of vin brulé, a sort of mulled wine.

The townspeople have done their duty: the Giubiana is gone. Until next year.

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