The first procession, or the first leg of it, begins where the old part of town starts to rise towards the mountains. Whether the witch, la Giubiana, is already among us, or whether we are walking to meet her by the portico outside the main church, is unclear. The streets are narrow, faces and costumes reduced to shifting shadows under the large trident-shaped torches.
As with any festivity, the main draw is food. Most years my family would skip the trial altogether and wait by the open-air kitchen, then stand with food (always, rigorously, risotto with saffron and sausage) and mulled wine by the fire, the closest approximation I had as a child to Guy Fawkes. And so for many years I missed almost the entirety of the ceremony, partly due to laziness, mainly greed, but also conscious of the language barrier we would have to face for a full hour before the pyre was lit.
Dialect: the gradual fall in the usage of local dialect is something of a national complaint. Quite what its defenders seek to protect is unclear, since by now most dialects are nothing more than a collection of ritualised call and responses, proverbs elevated to the status of communication.
The event is the most condensed version of what is patronisingly referred to as “local colour”. In most towns the whole affair consists simply of a procession towards the pyre, enlivened by traditional costume, essentially a precursor to February’s carnival. The basics are the same, the interpretation changes. In a larger town to the south of us, la Giubiana is a beautiful noblewoman who betrays the town in its litigations with Milan. Otherwise she tends to be an old witch who scares, and sometimes eats, children. Living in the forest, jumping from tree to tree, never touching the ground, she is a stereotypical outsider, the disturber. Origins are always unclear, or else elaborated upon to give the practice a more illustrious history. The motives are more likely to be revealing than any document unearthed.
Campanilismo: every church spire marks a kingdom, an autonomous territory that sustains itself through wilful ignorance of proximity and similarity. Were you to be driven straight into the centre of town blindfold in the back of a van, you might never know that similar festivals were being held all over the region. My focus on difference and the local is then nothing more than a perversion, playing into the hands of the town tourist bureau.
In my town, la Giubiana isn’t simply burned, she is put on trial. Witnesses are brought forth, both for the prosecution and the defence. A lawyer is called up from Milan (again, the hated city, mother to us all). The witch is an internal disturbance, or rather, she is part of a cast of characters that sees the local and the mythical intertwine in odd ways.
The cast is a large one, and deserves to be listed. Accompanying the witch on her journey to the fire we find the following: the town elders, the Regiuu, obligatory in any tradition to the point of appearing as fanciful as any witch; the Boja, executioner; the torch-bearers, Cilòstar, terrifying and closely followed, one hopes, by the Pumpiér, bicycle-pedalling firemen in 19th century garb, for presumably practical reasons the only institutional representatives; the Scarenèj, representatives from the neighbouring village; then we find the shepherd, and the Alpée, who inhabits the refuge higher up in the mountain, followed by the hunter and the chained bear he has caught; in a corner stands the soothsayer, Barbanégra; defending the witch, l’Aucatt di caus pèrs, the defender of lost causes, lawyer from Milan, and the Cumàr da la Cuntrada, the old busybody who reads the Giubiana’s testament. A vast flock of children, some in white, some in black, the Bun and the Gramm, cheer and make as much noise as they possibly can with pans and bells, though quite who they are cheering and why is mainly left to the individual conscience. As an alpine town, albeit on the very border with the plane beyond, the idea of city limits is vague at best. Many representatives live in the surrounding mountains, and are joined by a set of altogether more fantastical beings. So, along with the Diauj da la bèla vus, silver-tongued devils who praise the witch, come the Agnuana, the water-nymph, and l’Òmm Selvadech, the wild man of the woods. These last two remain silent presences throughout the procession and trial, looking in, though unaffected by the proceedings.
Celts: Why always the Celts? A map showing the maximum Celtic expansion shows a small triangle jutting southward from the Alps into the Po valley. There are many vested interests in emphasising these origins over all others, particularly among the most separatist factions of the Northern League. “Celtic”, more often than not, simply designates “non-Roman” or “non-Italian”. My suspicion is that the “Celtic” nature of most of the region’s festivities has grown in the last 20 years, in direct relation to the growth of that political party. Certainly in my own town I have seen the fall of traditional left-wing festivals, like the Festa dell’Unità, in favour of these neo-pagan “traditions”.
So far, so Wicker Man. The mythological elements of the procession are of course the most eye-catching, the ones most often stressed by the institution that organizes the event each year, yet to me they have always appeared as add-ons, an acknowledgement perhaps of hazy origins, or just a way to liven things up. In early January, posters appear throughout the town, specifying the time, date and locations of the procession, along with the list of characters. Also included is a brief explanation, alluding to a “purification rite” (naturally Celtic), aimed at shortening the winter. This may indeed be a good approximation of the origins of the practice, but seems to ignore the biggest part of the whole evening: the trial.
The danger of any folk art is that those involved feel a constant need to justify it by means of legend, mythology, religion. The reality is that La Giubiana is not an arcane ritual: it is an entertaining piece of street theatre, a fanciful representation of the town at the end of the 19th century. After all, if there is one thing that can be safely said of Italy as a whole is that, North or South it has always been a breeding ground for theatre. But this too might be fanciful. Perhaps my mistrust of tradition is such that I can only accept performance as art, convinced like Barthes that the reader, unlike the acolyte or participant, is able to “skip lightly over the reactionary darkness”.
Celts, a second use: although in Italy most reappropriations of Celtic culture are fascist in nature, there is a more minor, if comparable leftist interpretation. A significant number of Irish-influenced folk bands have used that same map of Celtic expansion to connect with socialist and anarchist groups from Spain and France, a rare attempt to use history to promote inclusivity, albeit in the name of awful music.
The closest I came to being an insider was when, in my mid-teens, me and a group of kids from the music school were asked to drum during the procession. Those of us who had no training in percussion where given a battered floor tom and a stick, and taught the basic rhythm: thump, pause, thump, pause, thump, thump, thump, pause. Despite our extravagant eye rolling, the percussion teacher made us practice this for a full five minutes before he was satisfied that our mushy brains could retain the beat.
Bun and Gramm: if you have no idea what is going on, you can be one of the children, the good or bad, bun or gramm. That terrifying distinction has evaporated over time. The consensus now seems to be that the good call in the spring, and the bad scare away the winter. This reveals an attempt to simplify the story, from a play about a town’s internal divisions, to a classic “us against them” narrative. Another interpretation, which I seem to recall from my very early school days, is that the “good” ask the court to spare the witch, and the “bad” call for her to be burned.
Watching a recording of last year’s procession, I noticed a scene that I had previously forgotten. Before arriving at the portico where the trial is held, the procession halts in front of a small fire that blocks the way. A group of witches swoop in from the side alleys, dancing around the fire and hitting it with their brooms. These are the Giubiane of years previous, readying the flames that will envelop their newest companion. This is also the only moment in which the Aguana and Òmm Selvadech participate in the event, extinguishing the flames with a bucket of water. The two spirits dance, but are soon interrupted and scared away by the chained bear, who is dragging the hunter behind him. For no apparent reason the bear starts to dance with one of the witches. It is a moment of true farce, a thumbed nose at those who seek to reduce the event to anthropological necessity. The Giubiana resists meaning. She hints at history and mythology, but leads to warmth and food. Says Adorno: “The bourgeois want art voluptuous and life ascetic; the reverse would be better.”