Who is the Befana?
She’s an old woman, looking like a witch, who flies on a broom in the night between the 5thand 6thof Januarys. If the child has been good she will give candies and toys, but if he or she has been naughty, they will get coal. This particular Italian tradition was very important in the past and until the end of the Second World War Italian children only had the Befana bringing them gifts. Santa Clause was introduced later into the Italian Christmas Tradition.
So where this mysterious character did came from?
Every year, on the 5th January, before going to sleep children put a big sock near the window for the sweets. Sometimes they leave some cookies and milk for theBefana, as they did for Santa Claus on the Christmas ‘night.
The tradition of presents on the 6thof January is also known in other countries: the Three Wise Men came to Bethlehem to bring royal gifts to Jesus, recognizing him as a King, and that day for Christian Religion is called Epiphany, which means manifestation. The Three Kings represent the human being recognizing the revelation of God who made man.
It is the misspelling of “Epifania“, the Italian word for Epiphany, which created the word “Befana”. According to Christian legend there was an old woman who was sweeping her house when the Three Wise Men knocked at her door on their way to Bethlehem. She hosted them and gave them food and drinks. The day after, they asked her to follow them and to find baby Jesus. Being busy she rejected the offer. Later she had a change of heart, and tried to search out the astrologers and Jesus. That night she was not able to find them, so to this day, La Befana is searching for the little baby. She leaves all the good children toys and candy (“caramelle”) or fruit, while the bad children get coal (“carbone”),
Another Christian legend takes a slightly darker tone as La Befana was an ordinary woman with a child whom she greatly loved. However, her child died, and her resulting grief maddened her. Upon hearing news of Jesus being born, she set out to see him, delusional that he was her son. She eventually met Jesus and presented him with gifts to make him happy. The infant Jesus was delighted, and he gave La Befana a gift in return; she would be the mother of every child in Italy.
Befana was never a widespread tradition among the whole Italian people. Having originated in Rome and having become well known and practiced by the rest of the population only during the last century, it keeps on being strongly followed prominently in the capital region and central Italy,]where it was the only traditional figure giving gifts to children before Santa Claus’ tradition arrived from the United States in the recent decades.
An interesting theory connects the tradition of exchanging gifts to an ancient Roman festivity in honor of Ianus and Strenia (in Italian a Christmas gift used to be called strenna), celebrated at the beginning of the year, when Romans used to give each other presents. According to this explanation the Befana tradition is a clear example of how Christianity and Paganism merged together and formed a new tradition.
The tradition of Befana appears to incorporate other pre-Christian popular elements as well, adapted to Christian culture and related to the celebration of the New Year. Historian Carlo Ginzburg relates her to Nicevenn. The old lady character should then represent the old year just passed, ready to be burned in order to give place to the new one.
The Befana is celebrated throughout all of Italy and has become a national icon.
Traditionally, all Italian children may expect to find a lump of “coal” in their stockings (actually rock candy made black with caramel coloring), as every child has been at least occasionally bad during the year.
In particular a place in Rome is nowadays associated with the Befana tradition: Piazza Navona in central Rome is the site of a popular market each year between Christmas and the Epiphany, where toys, sugar charcoal and other candies are on sale. The feast of the Befana in Rome was immortalized in four famous sonnets in the Roman dialect by the 19th century Roman poet Giuseppe Gioacchino Belli. In Ottorino Respighi‘s 1928 Feste Romane (“Roman Festivals”), the fourth movement, titled La Befana, is an orchestral portrayal of this Piazza Navona festival. Romans believe that at the midnight January 6 the Befana shows herself from a window of Piazza Navona, and they always go there to watch her (it’s a joke everybody tells while going to the feast to buy candies, toys and sweets).
In Italy the 6th of January marks the official end of the Christmas season and the last day of the Christmas holidays. The days after children have to go back to school and adults go back to work, so this tradition is a way to have fun the last day of holiday as well.
In the past children received only coal (the real one) if they had been naughty, while the good ones received sweets; but now all receive socks full of sweets, sweet coal and sometimes little presents You can fill them on yourself or buy them ready in each shop, market or supermarket. It’s more commercial sure but the magic of Befana continues.