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The Legend of the Giubiana

The Giubiana festival is a very popular tradition in Lombardy

By the end of january, several localities in the province of Como fire up large bonfires that are used to burn dummies made out of straw and rags: the Giubiana Dummies.

There are various dummy shapes and multiple ways in which they are burned, yet this practice's origins hail from ancient rituals reenacting a judicial process and an execution with purifying fire. The previous year is symbolically executed for its load of negative events. With its demise, good wishes for the future are propitiated with a new rebirth.

Every comunity has followed its own version of this ritual alongside various tales and traditions. In numerous towns, the Giubiana is pictured as an old, vile witch. This character is linked to the tradition of the risotto with luganega sausage. Legend says that the hungry witch chased children in order to eat them. A mother had an idea in order to save her own son by preparing a large pot of yellow risotto with sausage, hoping that the hag would rather taste a piglet's tender flesh an spare her child's life. She put the pot near the window. Its inviting scent draw the Giubiana's attention, who rushed in to eat it the risotto. She kept eating for the whole evening without realizing that the sunrise was drawing near. Since witches cannot survive sunlight, she bursted in flames as soon as the first ray of light reached her.

The Giubiana in Cantù does not look like an old witch but a beautiful lass who betrayed the city centuries ago. During the decade-long war between Como and Milan (1118-1127), Cantù was allied with the Milanese capital, enduring Como's relentless siege. One evening, a young, heavenly-looking maiden knocked on the city gates seeking asylum. The gates were opened and she was welcomed in. Yet this young woman got hold of the city keys and delivered them to its enemies. Cantù fell to Como's might, but Milan won the war soon after, so locals enacted their vengeance by capturing the traitor and sentencing her to be burned to the stake. Every year, a dummy dressed in elegant garbs is exposed for public shaming and then paraded into Piazza Garibaldi, Cantù's main square. Once there, the sentence is read aloud in front of the crowd and the authorities, then thrown into the flames. If the dummy burns in its entirety, then it will be a good year.

Whether she is beautiful or ugly, the Giubiana has become an occasion to gather up, celebrate and taste some nice risotto, drink mulled wine or watching fireworks in good company. 

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