Visit Italy around Christmas, you might be intrigued to see depictions of an old hag sitting astride her broomstick amongst the holiday decorations. It seems more appropriate to Halloween than to Christmas. This is la Befana, or the Christmas witch, beloved by Italian children for the gifts (and hopefully NOT the lump of coal) that she leaves for them on the night of 5 January – Epiphany Eve in the Roman Catholic calendar, also known as the 12th Day of Christmas.
In most western countries, during the holiday season, Santa Claus, Kris Kringle, St. Nicholas, or Father Christmas arrive bearing presents. So why the Befana, the only WOMAN who delivers gifts, is portrayed as a witch defies logic! Nevertheless, she is a revered figure in Italy, warts and all.
According to legend, the Befana was minding her own business, sweeping out her house with her broom, when Three Wise Men showed up at her doorstep, asking for directions to where they could find the Christ child. She didn’t know but provided them with shelter for the night.
The next morning, as they were setting out on their journey, they invited her to join them on their quest, but she was too busy sweeping and refused. Later in the day, she had a change of heart and set out on her broomstick to find the baby, taking a bag of sweets with her as a gift. When she couldn’t find the baby (or the Wise Men), she distributed the gifts to children along the way, a tradition she continues to this day.
The word “Befana” is believed to derive from “Epifania,” the Roman Catholic religious observance to mark the arrival of the Three Wise Men in Bethlehem. However, there is no agreement on where this tradition started. Some say the tradition began in the 8th century, others during the 13th. Others link it to Strenia, the ancient pagan Roman goddess of the new year whose name comes from the gifts that the Romans exchanged during the holiday.
Traditionally, La Befana is portrayed as a witch with a crooked nose, her face smeared with the soot from the chimney. Wrapped in a black shawl, she rides her broomstick from house to house dropping off gifts and chocolates to good children and a lump of coal to those with a less than stellar record.
Whatever the origins of the tradition, Epiphany is a holiday in Italy, marked by pageantry and celebrations in honor of La Befana. In Rome it includes a colorful parade that wends its way from Castel Sant’Angelo (aka Hadrian’s Mausoleum) along the Via Della Conciliazione to St. Peter’s Square. Flags fly, bands play while young and old, dressed in costumes to match various periods of Rome’s history, walk the half mile stretch. There are archers and gladiators, Roman legions and medieval swordsmen, noblewomen and servant girls, the Carabinieri mounted band and the Bersaglieri with their plumed hat. Spectators, sometimes 4-5 deep, line the route cheering on the marchers.
As for the Befana, she rides to the Vatican in a white, chauffeured vintage sports car at the end of the procession. Once she is finished at the Vatican, it is off to Piazza Navona for more festivities in the shadow of Bernini’s famous fountains.
VIVA LA BEFANA!
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