03 Jan La Befana vien di notte…
LA FESTA DELLA BEFANA
You thought it was over after Cenone, the New’s Year Eve fabled dinner, but actually in Italy the official end of the Christmas season isn’t until January 6—the Day of the Epiphany holiday in Italy.
Epiphany is the twelfth day of Christmas and it commemorates when the three Wise Men arrived at the manger bearing gifts for Baby Jesus.
In Italy we say: “L’Epifania tutte le feste porta via” – something like: Epiphany takes away all the holidays.
On the night of The Epiphany’s eve, children prepare their calza della Befana– corresponding to the Christmas stocking- near the chimney so that it can be filled with candies and presents. So after Saint Lucia, Santa Claus, and Baby Jesus finally comes la Befana!
Who is la Befana? History and folklore
La Befana is a unique Italian epiphany tradition. She is a kind of generous “good witch” who – flying on her broomstick – distributes candies and small toys to good children, and coal (black sugar) to the naughty ones. She’s always pictured as an old woman with poor clothes but a generous heart, flying on her broom.
Celebrations are most felt especially in the central regions of Italy, where the figure of this generous granny is a real institution. Her origin is custom in both the pagan and Christian traditions.
The tradition goes back to Ancient Rome when it was custom to celebrate the winter solstice exchanging gifts. According to what has been handed down from the oral narrative, the tradition derives from Numa Pompilio, one of the seven kings of Rome.
Pompilius apparently used to hang a large sock inside a cave, between the winter solstice and the first days of January. According to a popular legend, in fact, from time to time a nymph could have filled the improvised pouch with prestigious gifts from nature.
The Christian tradition instead connects this pagan tradition with the history of the Wise Woman. They asked her for directions and they announced Christ’s birth, but since she was too busy with housework she declined to join them. Later she changed her mind, and to this day is still searching for the child, leaving presents for any good children she comes across.
Unfortunately, the old woman was very poor, so much so that she was dressed in patched clothes and sandals that were now destroyed, so the locals decided to hang socks and boots to repay her for her effort. Arriving inside the house, the woman could have chosen whether to collect socks or, alternatively, fill them with irresistible sweets.
Main Italian piazzas often host fun activities for children; in Venice, along the Grand Canal, on January 6, the Befana Regatta takes place. In many parts of Italy a large wooden pyre – with the puppet of Vecia (old woman) on top – lights up. Looking at the direction of the smoke and the sparks, predictions are made for the future.
The oral tradition is full of rhymes and poems on the myth of the Epiphany, which are known in slightly different versions throughout Italy. Here is one of the most famous versions:
La Befana vien di notte
Con le scarpe tutte rotte
Con le toppe alla sottana
Viva, Viva La Befana!