January 6 marks the end of the holiday season in Italy,
commemorating the day on which the Three Wise Men arrived in Bethlehem
to present their famous gifts to baby Jesus. The lively, month-long celebration that begins with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8 goes out with a bang on Epiphany.
It’s only fitting that the holidays in Italy go out in style, seeing as the country is famous the world over for fashion.
But Epiphany’s cover model in this land of haute couture is a pouty-lipped temptress in Valentino, nor is it some hottie soccer player in Versace. Strutting down the Epiphany runway in Italy is a witch — that’s right, an old, grizzled, funny-looking hag with warts and the whole witchy works — and her name is Befana.
Befana: The Witch Who Brings Gifts on Epiphany
Allora… let’s do a little recap of the holidays in Italy up to this point:
For Christmas we’ve feasted like kings, consuming copious amounts of seafood, Prosecco, and panettone. We’ve worn red underwear and eaten lentils and grapes to bring good fortune on San Silvestro (Dec 31st), and we’ve chucked dishes out the window in a noisy, messy, symbolic gesture of making space for good in the New Year.
To bring the festivities to a close, what could be better than a witch swooping in on a broomstick to deliver gifts to the children? It’s perfectly in keeping with the Italian spirit of doing the holidays bigger and better than anyone, right? Babbo Natale bringing his loot down the chimney on Christmas won’t suffice; we’re gonna do it all again on Epiphany, but with a different courier.
The Rich Folklore of Befana
The legend of Befana is a fine example of pagan-Christian fusion, and there are differing versions.
In the most popular and lighthearted tale, the Magi rolled into Befana’s village and asked her how to find the Christ child but she was unable to help them. She did, however, give them lodging for the night in her cottage, which had the reputation of being the most immaculately kept in the village.
The wise men invited her along on their journey but, being too busy with her housework, she could not accept. She later changed her mind and went after the Magi with a basket of gifts for the infant Jesus but couldn’t find them. To this day, Befana is still searching for the newborn saviour, leaving her gifts for all the children of Italy instead.
Befana comes at midnight on Twelfth Night, when the eve of the twelfth day of Christmas becomes Epiphany, leaving gifts and candy in children’s socks. Well, if they’re good she leaves gifts and candy. If they’ve been misbehaving, Befana might bestow a lump of coal or a stick, maybe even an onion or some garlic.
Being the good housekeeper that she is, Befana sometimes sweeps the floor before leaving.
Ancient Origins, Modern-Day Tradition
Truth be told, Befana is more beloved than Father Christmas in Italy, and the origins of the folklore go way back, further back than old Kris Kringle, to Ancient Roman times. In those days, the death and rebirth of nature were celebrated on Twelfth Night, when the Earth Goddess flew over the fields in an act of divine benevolence.
The ancient pagan origins are still present in modern-day Befana, but now, instead of blessing the land with fertility and a bountiful harvest, our flying benefactress blesses our offspring with socks full of treats and a sugar-high to last til the sun goes down.
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