Vita Gazette

News from Italy

The Befana comes at night!

Anna Maria Tardioli – La Befana comes at night with all broken shoes … so says the beginning of the nursery rhyme that children recite on January 6. That this old lady wanders around the world at nightfall might be easy to guess, but why should she wander around with broken shoes? Why is it called Befana? It would be best if you dipped into ancient Italian traditions and beyond. The name Befana comes first from a distortion of the Greek term Epiphany or “manifestation, apparition”, and its history has its roots in distant times. So far away that the ancient Romans were already heirs: twelve nights after the winter solstice, the death and rebirth of Mother Nature was celebrated. They believed that during these nights, the goddess Diana or the goddess Satìa (satiety), it is not very clear, along with more or less numerous other female figures, propitiated the fields for future crops by flying over them. Hence, the myth of the woman on the broom could come from. But where would that of an older woman dressed in rags come from? This aspect of the legend could derive from the desire to represent the old year that has just ended or by tracing the birth of this folkloristic figure to the ancient agricultural rites; it could be associated with the still winter life that leaves room for the spring one. The delivery of the gifts seems to have belonged to this day from time immemorial;

The delivery of the gifts seems to have belonged to this day from time immemorial; in ancient Rome, Strènia was celebrated (hence strain or gifts) as a symbol of the new year with the exchange of gifts. It is sure that having crossed centuries and centuries, the myth of the Befana has indeed been contaminated by popular beliefs that are more or less common throughout Italy. The delivery of gifts is reminiscent of that of Santa Lucia or Santa Claus. However, the latter was not very popular in Italy until the 1970s. Until then, the Befana was the most awaited party by children, who were very curious to find out if they had behaved well by receiving many sweets or much less well by finding pieces of coal! The reason why stockings are hung is in a famous story that spread around the 12th century. Christianity had banned all pagan rites and traditions. The legend of the Befana was no exception. Therefore, its history was rewritten in a Catholic key: legend has it that the Magi, on their way to Bethlehem, asked for information from an older woman who, not believing in the birth of Jesus, did not want to help them. A few days later, taken by remorse, she wandered from house to house, leaving sweets and gifts, hoping that at least one was Jesus. The older woman was poor, and her clothes were worn out from so much wandering. Families began to hang shoes and socks outside or in homes to repay her.

If this custom still unites the Italian regions today, over the centuries, each region has developed its way of celebrating the Befana with festivals and events that characterise them. Starting in the nineteenth century, for example, the feast of the Befana became so popular in Rome that young and old began to gather in Piazza Sant’Eustachio, where there were many candy shops and witch puppets. Today, the festival is traditionally repeated in Piazza Navona, where adults and children do not disdain strolling, eating sweets, and attending the artistic representations of the “Befane”. In Friuli, however, it is customary to organise a large bonfire, Il Penevin, a wish for the new year; to be, however, the bonfire must have specific characteristics: the sparks must be high, and therefore, the farmers poke them with the forks; the older ones, depending on the direction of the wind, will also be able to predict whether it will be a good year or not. In Venice, an event that has become a fixed appointment for thirty years characterises this day: La Regata della Befana. From the Dolfin Manin Palace, the residence of the last Doge, the boats driven by old members of the Bucintoro club, the oldest rowing company in the city, depart for boats disguised as Befana. Whoever arrives first at the Rialto Bridge will win and cross the finish line, which consists of a very long sock hanging from the bridge !!

And finally, the most anticipated event is the Befana of Urbania flight. In almost all the major Italian cities, you can admire the flight of the Befana as she engages her broom over the heads of those who observe her tens and tens of meters below. Still, Urbania, this Marchigiana city in the province of Pesaro-Urbino, is the city of the Befana !! The entire town participates and prepares for the event. Since 2016, there has been the house of the Befana, complete with a personal post office where children can leave their letters to the old lady with a long nose! Its traditional flight from the city’s bell tower is the most spectacular in Italy.

 If, ultimately, the Befana represents the conclusion of the old year and takes all the bad things away, then let it be quick to pass over our heads, and it can carry away all the wrong moments that we experienced in the year just ended … and we hope to receive many sweets and a little coal !!!

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