If Christmas in Italy traditionally starts on 8th December with the public holiday that marks feast of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception, it equally traditionally ends on 6th January with the feast of Epiphany that commemorates the visit of the Magi to the new-born Holy Infant, and thus the revelation of god made flesh as Jesus Christ. That’s the official, Church position, at least. More popularly, however, this public holiday also celebrates the arrival on the Eve of Epiphany – aka Twelfth Night – of La Befana.
On the night before Epiphany this cheery-looking, hook-nosed hag, who in Italy is easily as popular among children as Babbo Natale (Santa Claus), rides on her broomstick from house to house, filling children’s stockings with toys, sweets and fruits – if they have been good; if the have been bad, they may receive just coal, onions or garlic. That said, since no child can be good all the time, every stocking nowadays normally also contains a chunk of coal in the form of black-coloured candy. Good or bad, though, if children try to catch a glimpse of La Befana when she arrives, she may give them a whack with her broomstick – although this may just be a parental ruse to try and keep over-excited children in bed. La Befana is usually depicted wearing a black shawl and covered in soot since she enters children’s houses via the chimney. As a gesture of welcome and thanks, families usually leave her a glass of wine and a plate of tasty titbits or Christmas treats such as panettone to restore her for her onward journey. She is a well-mannered visitor and traditionally sweeps the floor with her broom before she leaves, which to some has come to symbolise sweeping away the problems of the old year.
While it was not until the twentieth century that the traditions of La Befana cameto be practised throughout Italy, her roots are thought to be in Roman festivities honouring both Strenia, the goddess of the new year, purification and well-being, and Janus, the god of beginnings, endings and transitions who is usually pictured facing both backwards and forwards. These were held at the start of the year – ‘January’ is widely thought to derive from ‘Janus’ – and involved the exchange of gifts. Like many rites and customs of pagan worship, La Befana was subsequently adopted by the early Church and her origins woven into the Christian narrative relating to the birth of the Christ Child. The only thing is, the Church has never been able to settle on a single, definitive version of the legend. That said, most versions typically tell of the Magi asking La Befana for help in their search for the new born Son of God, and her regret that she does not accompany them on her journey because she has her housework to do. Wracked with guilt, La Befana later tries either to join the Magi in their search or to find the baby Jesus herself, and according to one telling, takes food and gifts for the infant Christ with her along with her trusty broom with which to help Mary keep the stable clean. Her good intentions go unrewarded, however, and so more than two thousand years later she still visits the home of every child in her continued search for the new-born Messiah. In the absence of the Son of God himself, she leaves gifts for all good children, taking comfort from the belief that the Christ Child is present in all children.
Another variation depicts La Befana as a grieving mother, who, on hearing of the birth of Jesus, sets out to find him, believing him to be her dead child. In this version, however, her search is successful and she is able to present the Christ Child with her gifts, and the gift he gives her in return is to be the mother of every child in Italy.
Although La Befana is an integral part of Epiphany celebrations everywhere, she is held in especially high regard in the post-unification regions that historically formed part of the Papal States, in particular Lazio (which includes Rome), Umbria and Le Marche. Indeed, La Befana’s official home is in Urbania, a small town about one hundred and thirty kilometres north-west of us, where the four-day Festa della Befana is held annually. These protracted festivities normally involve every conceivable variety of Befana-based activity, attracting over fifty thousand visitors every year and rising. Children can visit La Befana in her house (a permanent site within the town hall), listen to her stories, watch her knitting stockings and scarves, and leave her letters expressing their good intentions for the coming year at the Befana Post Office. The town is lavishly decorated for the occasion with Befana-themed adornments including four thousand knitted stockings, and its winding, medieval streets are filled with stands offering craft demonstrations and traditional games, handmade toys and local food and drink. There are fire jugglers, street performers, dance and music as well as dressing-up competitions and gaggles of Befanas swooping among the bell towers.
Thanks to the ongoing Covid-19 emergency, this year’s festivities in Urbania were all virtual, and smaller events across the country were all cancelled. We must therefore hope that La Befana lived up to her reputation as a super-efficient housekeeper and used an extra big broom to sweep away the problems of 2020 so that at some point in 2021 may we once again sing, dance, eat, drink and make merry together.
Image: painting by James Lewicki from “The Golden Book of Christmas Tales”, 1956