A not long time ago, last days of November, on one of the Facebook groups about witchcraft I’m part of, I’ve read a post about “La Befana”, and many of those fellow witches were new to the topic. Being Italian, I wasn’t new to it. However, I thought it would’ve been nice to spread and tell a little bit more about this funny character that flies on the January’s skies and brings sweets (or coal!) to the children. As usual, grab a hot drink and make yourself comfortable, time for story-telling!
An old lady dressed in rags, with shabby shoes, big nose, flying on a sorghum broom: that’s how “La Befana” has always been described by our grandparents and in nursery rhymes as kids. There are different legends and beliefs around this funny old lady, some are more focused on the Christian tradition, some other with way older roots related to other cultures and beliefs.
“La Befana” according to Christian tradition...
La Befana comes during the night between the 5th and 6th of January, day that, according to Christian tradition, coincided with the arrival of the Three Kings to Jesus’ hut. This day, especially on Italian calendars, is called “Epifania” (Epiphany, from the greek “epifáneia” that means apparition or manifestation), and happens 12 days after Christmas, to remember the visit and the gifts of the Three Kings (gold, incense, myrrh).
The old lady is not involved in the Christian tradition itself, at least according to the texts in the Holy Bible. However, there is a legend that connects this character to the Three Kings.
It seems that the Three Kings were headed to Betlem to pay respect to the newborn. They got close to a small house on the road, and they decided to stop by to ask for directions. Waiting behind that door there was an old lady that didn’t help them because she didn’t understand their request.The Three Kings asked her to join them to visit the newborn Jesus, but she refused, saying that “she had a lot of stuff to take care of”.
After a few hours, the old lady understood she had made a mistake, so she went outside trying to find the Three Kings and join them. Unfortunately, they were already way too far, so she decided to stop every child she met and gift them something, hoping that was Jesus.
Since that moment, according to this legend, La Befana goes out every night between the 5th and the 6th of January looking for Jesus, stopping by every house and gifting candies to the good children and coal to the naughty ones.
…And according to other traditions.
During Ancient Romans times, it was custom to celebrate the death and rebirth of Nature during the 12th night after the Winter Solstice. During those twelve nights, they believed that feminine figures (later described as “witches“) used to fly above the sown fields to guarantee a rich harvest in the next seasons. Some versions of this tradition relate these figures to the Goddess Diana and Abùndia, the goddess of wealth. However, as we all know, the Church condemned the celebration of pagan rituals and beliefs around the IV century A.C., so this character slowly began to adjust to the Christian tradition: not a witch anymore, but simply an old shabby lady on a flying broom. According to other traditions, “La Befana” is, in reality, a figure of the Norse mythology, related to the characters Holda and Berchta.
What we do, in Italy, to celebrate “La Befana”?
Each family has its own tradition, which varies also based on the region. Generally, we use to leave cookies and milk before going to sleep, as a supply for that poor old lady that had to work all night long. Next to the fireplace or the Xmas Tree, we also leave a sock, where “La Befana” will put candies or coal inside during the night. At the rewake, that sock was pure magic.
I remember a nursery-rhyme I used to sing when I was a child, very well known here in Italy.
“La Befana vien di notte [La Befana comes at night] Con le scarpe tutte rotte [In old broken shoes] Con le toppe alla sottana [with patches on her petticoat] Viva, viva la Befana!” [Hurray, hurray, La Befana!]
Here also a link with a few events you can attend to in Italy!
We also have a saying about this tradition. Since Epiphany is the last holiday for a few months, we say “Epifania, che tutte le feste si porta via“, which means that the Epiphany takes away the holidays. Needless to say, in Italian sounds better because it’s in rhyme.
Hope you’ll get candies and not coal this year!
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