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The Befana comes at night! Learn about her celebration for the Epiphany

2nd Jan 2015

La Befana vien di notte / Con le scarpe tutte rotte / Il cappello alla romana / Viva, viva la Befana!

The Befana comes at night / With her shoes all worn out / With her Roman hat right on / Long live the Befana!

If you grew up in Italy as I did, you certainly know this poem by heart. We used to repeat these verses endlessly during the night between January 5 and January 6. It is then that an old woman, covered in tattered rags, is seen soaring in the Italian sky on her broomstick, bearing gifts for children and, sometimes, even grown-ups.

According to the tradition, we leave our stockings on the fireplace or on the windows on the night of January 5, and wake up to find them filled with candy and presents… but only if we’ve been good. The Befana is actually well known for punishing those who have been naughty by filling their stockings with coal or lumps of dark sugary candy.

Although her name sounds like that of the Christian festivity of the Epiphany (from the grek epifaneia = manifestation), which is when the Three Wise Men finally found Baby Jesus, she is allegedly of pagan origins. The ancient Romans in fact celebrated a group of flying women that were symbols of the regeneration and the rebirth of nature. This Roman cult took place exactly twelve days after the festival dedicated to the divinity of the Sun, or Sol Invictus – which was later transformed into what we now call Christmas. The Befana really resembles those flying women venerated by the Romans; the old witch, in fact, is believed to sweep the floor every time she comes bringing gifts at night, liberating the household from the problems of the past year.

The sacred and the profane meet in a legend that holds that the Befana was approached by the Three Wise Men on their way to see Baby Jesus. They asked her for direction as they were lost and, although she didn’t know where the child was, she gave the three shelter for the night. Regretting having declined to follow the Wise Men in their quest for the Son of God, she took off the next day looking for them. To this day, the Befana still searches for the Three Wise Men and for the baby. That’s why she comes to the house of all the children and leaves them a gift, hoping that she will finally find Baby Jesus.

The recurrence of the holiday of the Befana has a bittersweet undertone; we know that the arrival of the witch coincides with the last day of Winter break and that we will have to go back to school the next day. But despite the unfortunate timing, the Befana is still associated with many pleasant traditions that can be enjoyed all the way through January 6. Piazza Navona, for example, holds the popular and much crowded “Befana market,” where toys, sugar coal, candies, and traditional sweets can be purchased. Romans believe that during that night of the year the Befana will even show up in the Piazza, and so they go to watch her. She never does, but it’s a great excuse to go buy sweets and not feel guilty about it.

The beauty of the piazza and its market are best enjoyed when the night approaches, the sound of the two majestic fountains becomes a calming waterfall, and the smell of the caldarroste – roasted chestnuts – floats around the piazza. 

~ by Francesca Mirabile ~