In many places around the world, the holidays end with the passing of Christmas. Not so in Italy, where the holiday period continues up until the Epiphany on January 6th. The Epiphany is a Christian feast day (and national holiday in Italy) that celebrates the revelation of God incarnate as Jesus Christ. There’s an Italian proverb that says, “L’Epifania tutte le feste le porta via” (a rhyme alluding to the fact that the arrival of the Epiphany officially ends the holiday season). In Italy, only after the Epiphany will holiday decorations and lights be dismantled and put away.
Just like Santa Claus (Babbo Natale) is associated with Christmas, Italian children link the Befana with the Epiphany. The Befana is an elderly woman with a handkerchief or scarf tied over her head, a prominent nose and very few teeth; her preferred mode of transportation is a broom. Despite obvious similarities, any Italian will vehemently tell you that the Befana is most definitely not a witch. In Italy, it is not the job of Babbo Natale to fill stockings the night before Christmas (rather, he simply brings gifts); that job falls squarely on the Befana who will fill stockings that have been left out on window sills or near the fireplace the night before the Epiphany. Children who have been good will wake up on January 6th to find their stockings filled with candy, sweets and perhaps a few small toys or trinkets. The not-so-fortunate children that have misbehaved are destined to receive coal or garlic in their stockings.
La Befana vien di notte
con le scarpe tutte rotte
col vestito alla romana:
Viva viva la Befana!
Curious about the history of the Befana? Me, too. Of course, most of the more detailed information that can be found online is in Italian. Different sources give different accounts; some date the Befana back to pre-Christianity (likening her to Mother Nature and pagan rituals) while the more popular (and historically more recent) narratives recount that the Befana brings gifts to recall those brought to Jesus by the Three Kings.
According to legend, while on their way to Bethlehem to take their gifts to the newborn Jesus, the Three Kings found themselves lost and stopped to ask an old woman for directions. Despite their insistence, the old woman refused to leave her house to accompany them on their way. Feeling guilty afterwards for refusing their invitation, the old woman prepared a basket of sweets. Despite her best efforts, the old woman was unable to find the Three Kings to deliver her gifts. She then stopped at every house along the way giving sweets to the children she encountered, hoping that one of these children was Jesus. From that moment on, the Befana has circled the world giving gifts to children, seeking forgiveness.
While that particular legend seems rather melancholic, the arrival of the Befana is anything but for Italian children and she is a beloved folkloric character.
Want to join in on the cultural festivities? A family-friendly event honoring the Befana will take place in Monterosso on Saturday, January 6th, at 3pm. Music and snacks for the children will accompany the festivities in Piazza Garibaldi.