Festa della Epifania / The Epiphany
Tomorrow, the 6th of January is the Epiphany and a ‘Festa’ or public holiday here in Italy. For most children here though, it is La Befana, when an old woman (called The Befana) often portrayed as a witch comes to visit them at night with lollies (candy in American, caramelle in Italian) or in the case they have been naughty, they will receive a lump of coal, garlic or onions. The Befana comes down the chimney much like Father Christmas except she rides a broomstick instead of a sleigh.
I have asked a lot of my friends here about the Befana, fascinated by this legend and of course another excuse to receive presents so close to Christmas. Most children hang their stockings or home-made socks by the chimney in the hope that in the morning it will be full of sweet treats. Traditionally, all Italian children may expect to find a lump of coal in their stockings (actually rock candy coloured black to resemble coal), as every child has been naughty at least once during the year. Some people say to their children that if they happen to see the Befana when she visits during the night, she will hit you with her broomstick – this is obviously a good ploy to keep the kids in bed with their eyes closed in the hope they will stay quiet and asleep.
There are a few different stories in Italian folklore about the origins of the Befana, but the one that I like the most is a Christian legend that tells of an old woman, the Befana that was approached by the Three Wise Men a few days before the birth of the baby Jesus. They asked for directions to where the Son of God was, as they had seen his star in the sky, but she did not know. The Befana provided them with shelter for a night, as she was considered the best housekeeper in the village and with the most pleasant home. The Three Wise Men then invited her to join them on the journey to find the baby Jesus, but she declined, stating she was too busy with her housework. Later, however 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 said to still be searching for the little baby. On the eve of the Epiphany, Befana comes to a house where there is a child and leaves a gift. Although she has been unsuccessful in her search, she leaves all the good children toys and caramelle while the bad children get coal / carbone, onions or garlic.
Befana notices a bright light in the sky; she thinks this is the way to baby Jesus. She brought some baked goods and gifts for baby Jesus in her bag and took her broom to help the new mother clean and began her search for baby Jesus. She searched and searched for Baby Jesus, but never found him. Befana still searches today, after all these centuries.
The Befana is celebrated throughout all of Italy and she has become a national icon.
There are poems and songs about the Befana, which are known in slightly different versions throughout Italy. Here is one of the more common versions:
La Befana vien di notte
Con le scarpe tutte rotte
Col cappello alla romana
Viva, Viva La Befana!
The English translation is:
The Befana comes by night
With her shoes all tattered and torn
She comes dressed in the Roman way
Long life to the Befana!