6 January is known as the Epiphany across the world, but for Italian children its main significance is the celebration known as “La Befana”. Traditionally, this is the day that an elderly, witchlike woman visits houses, leaving presents for well-behaved children – a second Christmas of sorts. It’s one of the most beloved Italian traditions, but who exactly is La Befana?
The origins of La Befana
La Befana is commonly represented as a very old woman – appropriate, considering that she’s even older than Babbo Natale (Santa Claus). La Befana has been flying around on her broomstick since at least the 13th century, and the most ancient origins of the legend can even be traced back to pagan celebrations in Ancient Rome. There are corresponding figures in other countries, such as the Germanic goddess Holda, or Perchta in Alpine folklore; like La Befana, they’re female personifications of winter. There are a few interesting parallels between pagan rituals in Ancient Rome and the current Befana. The Romans celebrated the death and rebirth of nature on the twelfth night after the winter solstice – in other words, around 6 January. Mother Nature also took the form of a woman flying over the fields, promising a bountiful harvest in the year to come. La Befana is also a flying woman – surely no coincidence!
The name “befana” comes from “epifania” (epiphany). The character’s pagan origins were originally problematic for the Catholic Church, but over the years La Befana was gradually accepted. One version of the legend even makes her part of the story of Christ’s birth. The three wise men knocked on the door of an old woman and asked her if she’d like to accompany them on the journey to visit the new-born Christ. The woman refused, saying she had too much work to do, but later regretted her choice. Ever since, she has been visiting children, filling their socks with gifts and treats, as she continues her search for Christ.
How is La Befana celebrated in Italy?
For adults, La Befana is a chance to enjoy a day off work, usually at home with the family. It marks the end of an extended holiday season – one last moment of rest and relaxation before the year begins. For children, it’s a mini-Christmas. They leave their stockings out on the evening of 5 January, hoping to receive some small presents and sweets. In theory, badly-behaved children should get coal in their stockings, but they’re more likely to get “carbone dolce” (sweet coal), a dessert made with sugar, egg yolk and black food colouring.
La Befana is also celebrated across Italy with street markets, parties and games for children. The best-known example is the festival in Piazza Navona in Rome, which typically features a merry-go-round, puppet shows and food stalls. However, just as traditional food varies from region to region, so does La Befana, and many towns have their own special traditions. An unusual pre-Befana tradition can be found in Cassino, a town halfway between Rome and Naples. On the evening of 5 January a brass band walks through the town, playing the same song over and over again and accepting donations of food and alcohol (Christmas leftovers).
But to truly understand La Befana, you have to experience the festival yourself. We recommend visiting Italy in January to make the most of the low season. Not only will you enjoy lower costs and fewer crowds, but you’ll also get to experience one of Italy’s most unique traditions first-hand!
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Read more: The Story of Befana, the Italian Santa Claus (The Culture Trip)