The Epiphany and the Good Witch
The Befana, an ugly old witch with tattered clothes, broken shoes and a heart of gold, brings sweets to the nice and coal to the naughty. Riding on her broom she brings gifts and takes away the holiday season, “L’Epifania tutte le feste, porta via!” On the night between the 5th and 6th of January the Befana arrives, consumes the cookies and milk and leaves gifts for all who believe. This antique tradition celebrates the pilgrimage of the Wise Men to Baby Jesus. There are numerous stories, poems and rhymes telling the story of the good witch who brings gifts. The best known rhyme describes the Befana,
La Befana vien di notte
con le scarpe tutte rotte
col cappello alla romana
viva viva la Befana!
The Befana comes by night
With her shoes broken and tight
With her hat in style Romana
Hurray, Hurray, the Befana
The probable origin of the Befana dates back into the XII century. Each small town, province and region spoke different dialects, languages in their own right. Epiphany, in the various dialects, was pronounced: in Tuscan, “Befania”, in Roman, “Pasqua Befania”, in Pugliese, “Pasqua Befani’” and the Calabresi, “Bufania”. During the period of remembrance of the trip of the Wise Men, the poor of the town would travel from house to house. Those who had something to give would leave various foodstuffs that the poor would gather before the long period of cold where food was difficult to find. It was thought the helping the poor would be compensated by a fruitful growing season and prosperity would come to the family if it shared in its wealth.
Since the gift was to be anonymous, in order not to shame the poor, the children were sent to bed with the promise of treats after the Befana came. The poor were often very poor, with broken shoes and tattered clothes on their backs. The Befana took their image and stories were created telling of how the Befana had been an evil witch who converted to good.
Around the XV century local holidays further augmented the tradition of the Befana. Towns prepared a week of celebrations and parades where on the 6th of January would be burned in effigy. The concept was that by giving freely to those less fortunate the family would honor the Christian spirit. The great celebration of burning the Befana was a symbol representing the elimination of poverty.
The Befana travels from house to house on her broomstick. Over her shoulder is draped a burlap sack filled with dried fruit, oranges, gifts and a good portion of ash and coal. In the fall children begin preparing their letters to the Befana, listing their good deeds and the things they desire. Good children receive the treats and naughty children the coal. Each child would leave his sock hanging from the mantle and would receive his merited reward.
As migration brought different cultures together, traditions were shared and adopted. Saint Nicholas and the Befana had similar roles and the traditions merged. Even in Italy the Befana has been losing ground over the last fifty years as the religious influence on modern culture decreases. The Befana today is making a comeback as many Italians are looking back to their traditions to maintain their identity as the world is subjected to globalization.
Urbania, in the Marche, has an annual festival of the Befana with 10 days of shows, fairs, parades and feasts. There are also numerous other cities, across the entire peninsula, where the antique tradition can be experienced with a child’s excitement of a magical holiday.
Tags: Holiday Traditions Urbania Marche culture Christmas Travel Italy