The Feast of the Epiphany is celebrated on 6 January as a national holiday in Italy. During it, there is a traditional holiday celebration where La Befana will arrive on Epiphany Eve (the night of 5 January) to deliver gifts to all children in Italy. She will fill the children’s socks with candy and presents if they are good, or a lump of coal or dark candy if they are bad, similarly with Santa Claus or Sinterklaas.
In Italian folklore, Befana is usually portrayed as an old woman 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. She is also referred to as the Christmas Witch.
Many people believe that the name Befana is derived from the Italians’ mispronunciation of the Greek word epifania or epiphaneia. Others point to the name being a derivative of Bastrina, the gifts associated with the goddess Strina.
Befana is a good housekeeper, many say that when Befana enters a children’s house, 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.
Today Befana has become a national icon. Urbania, a comune (municipality) in the Province of Pesaro e Urbino in the Italian region of Marche, is thought to be her home. Every year a big festival is held in Urbania to celebrate the holiday. About 30,000 to 50,000 people attend the festivities. Hundreds of Befanas 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.
Even if you do not celebrate Befana Day, you could still share the spirit by awarding your children, nephews or nieces, grand children, or any child with gifts or sweet treats if they have been a good girl or boy last year. We are sure that by receiving those gifts or sweet treats, they will be highly motivated to stay good this year!
What about you? Tell us your favorite Befana Day activity, or share your most memorable Befana Day celebration!