Vita Gazette

News from Italy

Being Italian: Epiphany and La Befana

by Andira Vitale

We Italians take advantage of every opportunity to increase our time with family and friends… One of these is the feast of the Epiphany and La Befana.

“The Epiphany takes away all the celebrations”. And “The Befana comes at night with her shoes all broken…” recites a famous proverb and a nursery rhyme widespread in Italy. They are celebrated on January 6th, but Epiphany is one thing; Befana is another.

First, let’s clarify a concept: Epiphany is one thing; the Befana celebration, which children like so much, is another. They are celebrated on the same day, January 6th, but derive from two different traditions. While the Befana is substantial of pagan origin (linked to the cults of ancient Rome in favour of the goddess Diana, protector of the woods and nature, and to the rites for the fertility of the fields: flying women in the nights following the winter solstice would have brought prosperity to the crops). The Epiphany, from the Greek ἐπιϕάνεια: apparition, and therefore “manifestation” (of the divinity), is purely Christian.

The term “Befana”, which refers to the legendary old lady who “comes at night with her shoes all broken” bringing sweets or coal based on the “goodness” of the child in question, derives, yes, from Epiphany – it is a linguistic corruption – but the two traditions are disconnected. In fact, with the Epiphany, the visit of the Three Wise Men to Bethlehem is commemorated, and therefore, in this case, the apparition is that of the Baby Jesus, an earthly manifestation of divinity.

What is Epiphany? On December 8th, we enter the magical atmosphere of Christmas when the lights on the Christmas trees are turned on. We celebrate December 25th with our families and friends, accompanied by our gifts. Afterwards, it is a public holiday. Epiphany is celebrated on January 6th, the day that puts an end to the Christmas holidays.

And the Befana comes at night, perhaps, but in any case, together with the Three Kings to sweep away the Christmas season with a sweep of the broom. In other words, we send away the old ones and open our doors and windows to the new ones… In other words, it is a period of renewal of nature and opening our doors to new products…

January 6th is very important, especially for children. Because the Befana distributes sweets to well-behaved children during the Epiphany, leave the coal for the bad guys. That’s why children take care to behave well all year round. This is why, during this period, you could see coloured or black candies in shops. And on January 5th, all the children leave their shoes and socks open so that the Befana leaves the sweets. The parades take place in the city centres. The children’s choirs of the Cathedral Chapel entertain the public with Christmas carols. After the participants’ greetings and the culverin explosion, the Three Wise Men place their gifts at the feet of Baby Jesus in the living Nativity scene.

Here comes the Befana! Who could this old lady be who is celebrated every January 6th, capable of overshadowing even the most noble Magi visiting the Bambinello? Some say she is a witch, and we see her arriving on a flying broomstick. In reality, the Befana is an archaic symbolic figure whose role and meaning are lost in the mists of time.

La Befana is an ugly older woman dressed in black.

Perhaps this typical Italian folklore character was born within ancient pagan propitiatory rites and then inherited from the Romans.

The figure of the older woman dressed in rags would instead represent the concept of an old, lived, worn-out year, or for others, of the poor and ungenerous winter nature. Everyone knows that on New Year’s Eve in Naples, many people throw objects from the windows of their homes directly onto the street. This, a bizarre habit, is an annual propitiatory rite. Therefore, the old Befana embodies the dormant nature of winter, which we could even say is dead, which will then have to be eliminated to make room for new regenerative energies.

The Befana also refers to the main characteristics of the masks, which are nothing other than demonic figures from the underworld, souls of the dead. We know what carnival means. But if we want the ear to grow, the seed must spend a period underground. And it is precisely there that they underlie the production cycle and evoke these fertility rites. An example of an archaic demonic mask can be found in Mamoiada in Sardinia: they are the Mamuthones. They wear a black wooden mask, horrible and grotesque, with an enormous nose and a mouth half-open in an eternal grimace, their heads covered with a black handkerchief tied under their throats like a peasant woman. Doesn’t it remind you of our Befana?

Befana stockings

La Befana is an older woman who brings sweets and coal to children on the night between January 5th and 6th. But why are socks being filled? According to one version, the Magi, on their way to Bethlehem, looking for the manager, asked an older woman they met along the way for information. Despite knowing that the Magi would see little Jesus, the woman did not want to go with them initially. When she regretted her decision, she prepared a basket full of sweets and searched for the Magi, hoping to reach them. She knocked on every house to find them and gave gifts to every child she met in the hope of also running into little Jesus. From then on, the Befana would travel the world, giving sweets to make amends, and the little ones would put socks and shoes outside the house door for an old lady: if she needed them during her wanderings, she could use them; otherwise, she would fill them with sweets.

Only in the Gospel of Matthew are these characters mentioned who arrive to visit little Jesus. Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea. Some Magi came from the east to Jerusalem and asked: “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We have seen his star rising, and we have come to worship him.” Therefore, only according to legend, there were three wise men. Their names Melchiorre, Baldassare and Gaspare. They entered the house, saw the child with Mary, his mother, and they fell and worshipped him. Then they opened their treasure chests and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Even at Christmas, you hang stockings on the fireplace. Santa Claus comes out of the chimney and brings gifts; he also fills the stockings he finds hanging with sweets. A role also entrusted to Saint Nicholas in some European countries. The protagonists are not only sweets but also oranges, the fruit that recalls the colour of the three gold ingots that Saint Nicholas (a natural person, bishop of Myra in modern-day Turkey, who died in 343 AD) gave to three poor girls, allowing them to get married with the dowry obtained from the gift. Even in Italy, this tradition has been preserved for a long time.

The coal

In tradition, the Befana also embodies the old year that passes away to make room for the new. In many Italian regions, the custom of burning a puppet to greet the past year is customary. The coal is reminiscent of the end-of-year bonfire made as a propitiatory rite: the sweet one has been associated with a sort of punishment for naughty children over time.

The carnival and the Befana

Carnival has ancient roots, which precede Christianity, and are based on the rural rites of propitiation and rebirth held precisely at the time of the year with the least light and available food. Over the centuries, Carnival was celebrated starting from Christmas, giving rise to masquerade courses, floats, carnival songs, dances, and disguised masks.

In short, winter was the most challenging period, and everyone hoped for the return of the beautiful season and abundance with its harvests and fruits. This is why these rites were celebrated: to remind everyone that the winter hardships would give way to spring flowering.

La Befana in Tuscany

In Tuscany, the Befana festival, in line with the propitiation rites, gave rise to the befanate in the past: actual begging songs in some villages of the Tuscan-Emilian Apennines. Some community members wrote quatrains of octosongs (the same meter used by Pascoli for his Befana…), which recounted the most important events during the year. They went out on the evening of January 5th and went from house to house to sing the quatrains. If the verses were appreciated, the hosts opened the doors to the singers, offering them food and drink and giving some change, which was then used for charitable purposes. This way, bonds within the community were strengthened, and a small propitiatory rite was celebrated (the offering and exchanging food).

Together with the singers, the figure, the mask of the Befana, was always present, usually personified by a man. The Tuscan Befana arrived on the back of a donkey. It was she who brought gifts to the children. As soon as she entered the house, the Befana performed a passionate and funny dance, lifting her skirts and showing hairy legs and bright garters to demonstrate, again, if there was any need, the comic mask nature of this figure. Sometimes, the Befana was accompanied by her husband, the so-called Befano, with whom the dance became even more explicit and fun.

Traditional Befana desserts: befanini

Among the traditional Befana, desserts used to reward the singers, children, and friends were defined, i.e., shortcrust biscuits decorated with grains of coloured sugar. To celebrate this holiday, befanini are prepared, delicious biscuits made with a rum-flavoured dough and decorated on the surface with coloured sprinkles. To make these sweet biscuits, moulds of various themed shapes are used, including the Befana’s shape in the traditional version. It is said that these sweets were born in the Viareggio area, and the past, it was tradition to prepare them and exchange them as gifts between various families, together with the moulds used to make them.

Consequently, Epiphany, the myth of the Befana, was born, a typically Italian festival linked to the cult of the harvest and the transition from the old year to the new.


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