Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Italy Awaits the Befana

January 6th is the Epiphany, a national holiday in Italy, when the Three Kings arrive in Bethlehem bearing gifts for the newborn Savior. However, here there is another tradition associated with this day that is perhaps even more widely considered: it is the celebration of the Befana (the name most likely derives from Epifania) – an old (but benevolent) witch-like hag arrives on her broom during the night of the 5th to bring treats (usually sweets in a stocking) to the children who have been good… (remind you of someone else??) – in case of the contrary, she leaves them some coal.

There are many legends and versions of how this tradition was born – perhaps the most probable having its origins in the rural celebration of the death and rebirth of Mother Nature on the 12th night of Christmas (after the winter solstice). Historically it was thought that she had become old and worn by the winter, thus she was represented as an old woman dressed in tatters who would make her final journey to distribute the “goods of the land” – like seeds for the earth - before perishing and being replaced by a youthful substitute in the spring.

Another legend has it that when the three Magi where seeking the birthplace of Jesus they asked an old woman for directions. She refused to accompany them but later repented for this decision and set out to try and find them, to show them the way, but never did. She stopped in every house to see if the holy child was there, and left sweets. From then on, during the night between January 5th and 6th she would continue to leave gifts for all children as an attempt to absolve her guilt.

Whatever the “real story” might be, the Befana represents the final day of the Christmas holidays, and we are all a bit sad to see her go!

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