30 Dec Who is the Befana?
The story of the Befana begins in the mists of time and descends from magical pre-Christian traditions. The term “Befana” derives from the Greek “Epiphany“, which means “apparition” or “manifestation”. The Befana is, therefore, celebrated on the day of the Epiphany, which usually ends the Christmas holiday period.
In the collective imagination, the Befana is represented by an old woman with a long nose and a sharp chin, who travels far and wide on a broom, bringing gifts to all children. On the night between the 5th and 6th of January, in fact, under the weight of a bag full of toys, chocolates and candies (but also a good dose of ash and coal for the children who have been naughty), the Befana flies over the roofs, climbs down the chimneys and fills the stockings that the children left hanging on the fireplace. To thank her for the gifts, the children leave her a dish with a tangerine, or an orange, and a nice glass of wine. The next morning, in addition to finding their gifts, or coal for those who were a bit too naughty, the children will see that the fruit and wine they left is gone and, in its place, there is her hand print in some ash on the plate as proof of her visit.
As the famous nursery rhyme says ” The Befana comes by night, with her shoes all tattered and torn, she comes dressed in the Roman way, Long live the Befana!”, The Befana wears a large dark skirt, an apron with pockets, a shawl, and a handkerchief, or witch style hat, on her head, covered in numerous coloured patches.
Originally, the Befana was the symbol of the year that just passed, a year that has become old now, just like the Befana herself. The gifts the old lady brings are auspicious symbols for the year that has just began.
In the Christian tradition, the story of the Befana is closely linked to that of the Three Wise Men. Legend has it that on a very cold winter’s night, Balthazar, Gaspar and Melchior, on their long journey to get to Bethlehem to see the baby Jesus, could not find the way and asked an old woman for directions, which she gave them. The Three Wise Men then invited the woman to join them but, despite their insistence, the old lady refused. Once the Three Wise Men had left, she regretted not having followed them and, with a sack full of sweets on her back, went looking for them, though with no success. In her quest, the old lady began to knock at each door, giving each child she met some sweets, in the hope that one of them was baby Jesus.