On Christmas Eve, children in Italy lie in their beds waiting for the arrival of Babbo Natale (Father Christmas), however, in January when their British cousins are helping their parents to pack away the tinsel and trees, Italian children are still celebrating. As they lie in their beds on the eve of Epiphany, they wait for another gift-bearing visitor.
On the 6th of January, to commemorate the arrival of I Magi (the three kings) bearing gifts for the twelve-day-old bambino Gesú (Jesus), children also celebrate the arrival of la Befana, the kind but very ugly witch.
Legend tells of an old woman who is invited by the kings to accompany them on their trip to Bethlehem. She refuses to join them because she is too busy with housework. Later she regrets her decision and goes out in search of them. Sadly, they have long since left the area, so she fills her arms with gifts and, after climbing aboard her broomstick, she takes to the skies.
Traditionally, families would burn a Christmas log in a specially built hearth called focolare; the log would burn for twelve days and it would light the way for la Befana.
On her journey to find the Christ child, she stops off at the homes of children to deliver presents. Good children receive nice gifts and the naughty ones wake to find cenere e carbone (ashes and coal) at the foot of the bed inside stockings; although nowadays the coal is often replaced with black pieces of confectionery.
In anticipation of her visit, children often recite verses dedicated to the visiting witch, one of the most popular being:
La Befana vien di notte
con le scarpe tutte rotte
con le toppe alla sottana
Viva, viva la Befana!
(La Befana comes in the night
With shoes completely broken
With her skirt all in tatters
Hurray, Hurray, La Befana!)
The name of the old lady called la Befana is unknown and, outside of Epiphany, this Italian term refers to an ugly woman; however, it is thought to be a corruption of the Ancient Greek word befania meaning manifestation, and a blend of the actual word, epiphany.
L’Epifania marks the end of the Italian holiday season, and today people still quote the old proverb, ‘L’Epifania tutte le feste si porta via’ (Epiphany carries away the holidays).
Despite the increasing popularity of Father Christmas, la Befana is still an important figure in the lives of children growing up all over Italy and long may she continue to be celebrated.