Befana

So, here in Italy January 6 is still a holiday, it’s the Epiphany day. Everyone (well almost, unfortunately shops are open) is at home enjoying the last family meal of the holiday season.

When I was little I thought the Befana (an old lady who flies her broom, like a witch but without witchy powers) was Santa’s wife and this view is commonly found among children. The concept of Befana is actually the same to Santa, thus the misunderstanding of her being his wife. She brings small gifts and candies to kids, but here where I live since we have Saint Lucia, she brings a stock full of sweets. And she can bring coal to bad kids, just like Santa,

What’s the Epiphany? What is important here? We have a saying:

L’Epifania che tutte le feste porta via.

The Epiphany that all the holidays brings away with it. (It’s a rhyme between the “ia” of “Epifania” and “via”). And that’s what it does, it takes away all the days in which we celebrate. Christmas decorations are taken down and put away for the next Christmas season.

Canonically the Epiphany is a Christian feast day that celebrates the revelation of God incarnate as Jesus Christ. In Western Christianity, the holiday celebrates the visit of the three Wise Men to Baby Jesus.

Customs want that Befana brings gifts to good kids, in fact the legend wants that, the Befana was approached by the Three Wise Men a few days before the birth of 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. She provided them with shelter for a night, as she was considered the best housekeeper in the village, with the most pleasant home. The magi 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, La Befana 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”), onions or garlic.

She is usually portrayed as a witch riding a broomstick through the air wearing a black shawl and is covered in soot because she enters the children’s houses through the chimney. She is often smiling and carries a bag or hamper filled with candy, gifts, or both.

There are poems about Befana, which are known in slightly different versions throughout Italy but this is the most common:

La Befana vien di notte
Con le scarpe tutte rotte
Col vestito 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 live the Befana!

Thanks to wikipedia for the history and legends.

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