In Italian tradition, La Befana is an old woman who delivers gifts and/or sweets to children throughout Italy on the eve of Epiphany to be opened on the morning of Epiphany (today). This seems like a suitable way to open my “gift”of posts for 2020 (which will continue to be few and far between). The name Befana is likely some corruption of dialect for Epiphany, but you will also read the usual rubbish about it, and the custom, being a survival of some long-lost “pagan”tradition. I am not going to spill any more ink in that direction.
In popular folklore, Befana visits all the children of Italy to fill their socks with candy and presents if they are good, or a lump of coal or dark candy if they are bad. In many poorer parts of Italy and in particular rural Sicily, a stick in a stocking was placed instead of coal. Being a good housekeeper, many say she will sweep the floor before she leaves. To some the sweeping meant the sweeping away of the problems of the year. The child’s family typically leaves a small glass of wine and a plate with a few morsels of food, often regional or local, for the Befana. She is usually portrayed as a hag riding a broomstick through the air wearing a black shawl and is covered in soot because she enters the children’s houses through the chimney. She is often smiling and carries a bag or hamper filled with candy, gifts, or both.
Christian legend has it that Befana was approached by the biblical magi (Three Wise Men) a few days before the birth of the Infant Jesus. They asked for directions to where he, as they had seen his star in the sky, but she did not know. She provided them with shelter for a night, as she was considered the best housekeeper in the village, with the most pleasant home. The magi invited her to join them on the journey to find the baby Jesus, but she declined, stating she was too busy with her housework. Later, La Befana had a change of heart, and tried to search out the astrologers and Jesus. That night she was not able to find them, so to this day, La Befana is searching for the little baby. She leaves all the good children toys and candy (“caramelle”) or fruit, while the bad children get coal (“carbone”), onions or garlic.
Another Christian legend takes a slightly darker tone as La Befana was an ordinary woman with a child whom she greatly loved. However, her child died, and her resulting grief caused her to become mad/crazy. Upon hearing news of Jesus being born, she set out to see him, delusional that he was her son. She eventually met Jesus and presented him with gifts to make him happy. The infant Jesus was delighted, and he gave La Befana a gift in return; she would be the mother of every child in Italy.
Another commonly heard Christian legend of La Befana starts at the time of the birth of baby Jesus. In this version, Befana spent her days cleaning and sweeping. One day the magi came to her door in search of the baby Jesus. However, Befana turned them away because she was too busy cleaning. Feeling guilty, she eventually decides to find Jesus on her own by following a bright light in the sky which she believes points the way. She brings along a bag filled with baked goods and gifts for Jesus, and a broom to help the new mother clean. Unfortunately despite her best efforts she never finds him. According to this telling, Befana is still searching after all these centuries for the new born messiah. On the eve of the Epiphany, Befana comes to every house where there is a child and leaves a gift. Although she has been unsuccessful in her search, she still leaves gifts for good young children because the Christ Child can be found in all children.
Popular tradition tells that if one sees La Befana one will receive a thump from her broomstick, as she doesn’t wish to be seen. This aspect of the tradition may be designed to keep children in their beds.
Befana was never a widespread tradition among the whole Italian people, having originated in Rome and having become well known and practiced by the rest of the population during the 20th century, and is now a national icon. In the regions of the Marches, Umbria and Latium, her figure is associated with the Papal States, where Epiphany held the most importance. Urbania is thought to be her official home. Every year there is a big festival held to celebrate the holiday. About 30,000 to 50,000 people attend the festivities. Hundreds of Befanas are present, swinging from the main tower. They juggle, dance and greet all the children.