Yule Legend of the Day
In Italian folklore, Befana is an old woman who delivers gifts to children throughout Italy on Epiphany Eve (the night of January 5) in a similar way to St Nicholas or Santa Claus.
A popular belief is that her name derives from the Feast of Epiphany or in Italian La Festa dell’Epifania. Epiphania (Epiphany in English) is a Latin word with Greek origins. “Epiphany” means either the “Feast of the Epiphany” (January 6) or “manifestation (of the divinity).” Some suggest that Befana is descended from the Sabine/Roman goddess named Strina.
In popular folklore Befana visits all the children of Italy on the eve of the Feast of the Epiphany to fill their stockings 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 an old lady 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.
The Befana is celebrated throughout all of Italy, and has become a national icon. In the regions of the Marches, Umbria and Latium, her figure is associated with the Papal States, where the 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 30,000-50,000 people attend the festivities. Hundreds of Befana’s are present, swinging from the main tower. They juggle, dance and greet all the children. Traditionally, all Italian children may expect to find a lump of “coal” in their stockings (actually rock candy made black with caramel coloring), as every child has been at least occasionally bad during the year.
- Piazza Navona in central Rome is the site of a popular market each year between Christmas and the Epiphany, where toys, sugar charcoal and other candies are on sale. The feast of the Befana in Rome was immortalized in four famous sonnets in the Roman dialect by the 19th century Roman poet Giuseppe Gioacchino Belli. In Ottorino Respighi’s 1928 Feste Romane (“Roman Festivals”), the fourth movement, titled La Befana, is an orchestral portrayal of this Piazza Navona festival. Romans believe that at the midnight January 6 the Befana shows herself from a window of Piazza Navona, and they always go there to watch her (it’s a joke everybody tells while going to the feast to buy candies, toys and sweets).
- The town of Urbania in the Province of Pesaro e Urbino within the Marches, where the national Befana festival is held each year, usually between January 2 and 6. A “house of the Befana” is scheduled to be built and the post office has a mailbox reserved for letters addressed to the Befana, mirroring what happens with Santa Claus in Rovaniemi.
- In Fornovo di Taro a little town by Parma the national meeting “Raduno Nazionale delle Befane e dei Befani” is held the 5th and 6 January. Lot of events and great fun.
In other parts of the world where a vibrant Italian community exists, traditions involving Befana may be observed and shared or celebrated with the wider community. In Toronto, Canada for example, a Befana Choir shows up on Winter Solstice each December to sing in the Kensington Market Festival of Lights parade. Women, men, and children dressed in La Befana costume and nose sing love songs to serenade the sun to beckon its return. The singing hags gather in the street to give candy to children, to cackle and screech to accordion music, and to sing in every key imaginable as delighted parade participants join in the cacophony. Sometimes, the Befanas dance with parade goers and dust down the willing as parade goers walk by.
The tradition of Befana appears to incorporate other pre-Christian popular elements as well, adapted to Christian culture and related to the celebration of the New Year. Historian Carlo Ginzburg relates her to Nicevenn. The old lady character should then represent the old year just passed, ready to be burned in order to give place to the new one. In many European countries the tradition still exists of burning a puppet of an old lady at the beginning of the New Year, called Giubiana in Northern Italy, with clear Celtic origins. Italian anthropologists Claudia and Luigi Manciocco, in their book Una Casa Senza Porte (House without a Door) trace Befana’s origins back to Neolithic beliefs and practices. The team of anthropologists also wrote about Befana as a figure that evolved into a goddess associated with fertility and agriculture.
Befana also maintains many similarities with Perchta and her Pre-Christian Alpine traditions.