The Christmas holidays in Italy end on January 6, with the Epiphany. To make the end of the holidays less melancholy, the Befana comes to the rescue.
Who’s the Befana?
The Befana is a folkloric figure linked to the Christmas holidays, typical of some Italian regions and then spread throughout the peninsula, less known in the rest of the world.
The Befana is represented as an old lady, with a hump and hooked nose. She travels on a broom, she is dressed in rags and dirty with soot, because when she can, she enters the houses through the chimney. The night between 5 and 6 January she leaves gifts and sweets to the children who have been good, while to those who have been less good she leaves pieces of coal (actually sugar with the appearance of cardboard!).
The Befana is a mainly Italian custom and coincides with the arrival of the Magi at the Bethlehem grotto, to bring gold, myrrh and incense as a gift.
An ancient tradition
Originally the Befana was a symbol of the year just lived.
The gifts that the old woman brought were auspicious symbols for the year that was about to begin.
In the Christian tradition, the story of the Befana is closely linked to that of the three Kings. Legend says that on a very cold winter night Balthazar, Caspar and Melchior, on the long journey to get to Bethlehem to see Jesus, unable to find the way, asked for information from an old woman who showed them the way.
The Three Magi, then, invited the woman to join them, but, despite her insistence, the old woman refused.
Once the Three Kings were gone, she regretted not following them and so she packed a sack full of sweets and began looking for them, but to no avail. The old woman, therefore, began to knock on every door, giving each child she met some sweets, in the hope that one of them was just Baby Jesus.
The stocking, the coal and the exchange of gifts
Whatever the true story of the Befana is, what is certain is that she is a figure closely linked to the Italian tradition, despite some similarities with those of Celtic and Germanic origin. Suffice it to say that this word, used to mean a female puppet exposed on the night of the Epiphany, was already widespread in the popular dialect of the fourteenth century, especially in Tuscany and northern Lazio.
Grumpy character and ready to sacrifice herself to revive a new period of prosperity, the Befana over time has become a sort of grandmother who rewards good children with gifts, candies and sweets (in the past also tangerines and fruit) and punishes the bad ones with coal. The dreaded charcoal which, however, can also become edible and a very simple dessert to prepare.
The tradition of stockings
Where does this custom originate from? Again there are several theories.
One of these is inspired by a legend according to which Numa Pompilius, one of the famous seven kings of Rome, used to hang a stocking in a cave during the winter solstice to receive gifts from a nymph. However, this is only a hypothesis. And it doesn't matter: today the Befana continues to be awaited by everyone, even by adults (who, however, tend to exchange gifts that are less demanding than those of Christmas) and always reminds us to keep alive the tradition of the stocking to be filled.
The arrival of Befana is a moment of celebration that marks the end of the holidays with joy and family warmth.
It is no coincidence that the usual phrase is “Epifania che tutte le feste si porta via”, literally "Epiphany that all holidays takes away".
Ready to start a new year with the sweetness of family affection that accompanied us in the past days.