La Befana is a holiday much celebrated in Italy, through its holiday markets and parades around the main cities. One of these cities, Rome, is known for its Piazza Navona, a central site where you see many Befana dolls for sale, as well as well as old ladies dressed like her wandering around the center of the city. It is on this day in the first week of January that children receive gifts, much like the US tradition of stockings, which are either candy or coal, depending on if the children have been good or bad that year.
This holiday, like the tradition of Santa, is mainly celebrated for children, and is rooted in many folk stories of an old lady, usually described as wearing a skirt, having a crooked nose dotted with warts, flying a broom, and sliding down the chimney to enter the houses of children. Sound familiar? That’s right, La Befana is a witch, but more like a witch that has merged with Santa Claus – she is also known as Epiphany, a name which comes from the Greek word επιφάνεια, meaning appearance or surface, and coincidentally also describes the Feast Day on which she brings presents.
La Befana‘s origins stem from the North of Italy and spread around the Bel Paese. In the Marche region, in a town called Urbania, they celebrate with Befana days, starting from 2nd and continuing until the 6th of January. During these days children can send letters to La Befana asking for gifts and the townspeople build a house in her honor.
Today, this holiday is well known around the world, and not only in Italy. Legends telling tale of the origin of this Mother Christmas often mention her presence.
The Old Lady Following the Magi
One legend talks about an old lady living in Bethlehem when Jesus was born. The three wise man, also called “i tre magi” in Italy, invited her to come and see the newborn baby, and to bring him gifts. She accepted but on the condition that she had to clean her house first, which of course took too long, and by the time she had finished, the men left. Once everything was tidied up, she left in pursuit of the men, but it was too late, and she has not been able to find Jesus to this day. Legend has it that she is still searching for him, and this is why she leaves gifts for every child she comes across hoping that one of these will actually be Jesus.
The Mother of all Italian Children
Another legend speaks of a mother mourning the loss of her child on the night of January 5, and the Magi came to make lift her spirits, but she sent them away. When she looked up at the sky, she saw the star of Bethlehem shining so brightly that she was compelled to follow it until arriving to the barn where the newborn Jesus was lying. The child was so delighted by the gift she brought him that he named her the mother of all Italian children, giving her the task to bring Christmas presents to every child each year.
This holiday remains today one of the children’s favorite holidays, not only because they are still in vacation, but also because they get more gifts after Christmas. Traditional songs are song on this holiday – one of the famous being “La befana vien di notte.”
The Befana Song:
“La Befana vien di notte
Con le scarpe tutte rotte
Con la gonna alla romana Viva viva la Befana”
“The Befana comes by night
With her shoes all tattered and torn
She comes dressed in the Roman way
Long life to the Befana!”
Which story, song or poem do you know about the Befana? Let us know – we are curious!