Befana: the Italian tradition of the Epiphany

The Befana is the least known Italian figure linked to the Epiphany feast in the world. According to the tradition, the character of the Befana visits the homes of Italy between 5th and 6th January, during Epiphany Eve. The goal of this elderly lady who flies with a broom is to fill the stockings that children leave hanging with sweets, candies and chocolates. If the children have misbehaved, however, they will find the socks full of coal and garlic. Let’s find out more about this unknown character.

Befana: a bit of history

The term Befana derives from a lexical corruption of Epiphany in Biphany and Befania. The origin of this character is perhaps linked to the pagan propitiatory rites for the seasonal cycles linked to agriculture. They used to thank for the harvest but even for the next one.

The ancient Romans also celebrated Mother Nature on the twelfth night after the Sol Invictus festival. Clearly, the goddess Diana was worshiped, a lunar goddess linked to hunting and vegetation. Another hypothesis would connect the Befana to the ancient Roman winter festival in honor of Janus and Strenia during which gifts were exchanged. 

According to other interpretations, the Befana would recall the Celtic figure of Perchta, comparable to figures such as Frigg in Scandinavia or Bertha in Great Britain. She is the personification of winter nature: an old woman with a hump and a hooked nose, dressed in rags and broken shoes. 

In a “Christianized” version, the Three Wise Men headed to Bethlehem to bring gifts to the Child Jesus asked an elderly lady for information. While insisting that she also go with them, the old woman did not leave the house to accompany them. But then she regretted her choice, so she filled a sack with gifts and she tried to look for them without success. So she stopped at every house to find him on the way, leaving her presents, hoping that one of them was the little Jesus.

Befana: the tradition that is repeated every year

Nowadays, there are many figures who dress up as old women to distribute gifts to children. Although often associated with a witch, the Befana is just an elderly lady with a flying broom. It recalls the religious tradition of Saint Lucia who dispensed gifts to children. She looks like a grumpy granny but with a golden heart. There are many nursery rhymes that describe this character. Each region has its own version. We report that one dedicated to the Befana of Rome:

«La Befana vien di notte

con le scarpe tutte rotte

Col vestito alla romana

viva viva la Befana!»

It literally means:

«The Befana comes at night

with all broken shoes

With the Roman dress

long life the Befana!»

In fact, in Rome, the Epiphany is a very heartfelt and choreographic celebration. This year, due to Covid-19 and restrictions, there was no party, but normally it is extremely impressive. In fact, it is highly recommended to spend January 6th in Rome to be able to see the arrival of the Befana in Piazza Navona, one of the most beautiful squares in Rome, where we hold most of our classes. The feast of the Epiphany is an opportunity to visit Italian cities enjoying the folklore, the art and the monuments.

So, on this day of tradition what have the Befana brought to you?

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