La Befana – The Celebration of Epiphany
By GrannyMoon, For The Lunar Monthly
Holidays in Italy are rich in traditions which have,for the most part,a religious history.
A favorite Italian holiday occurs on January 6 (some say January 5th).It is commonly known as “La Befana “(Twelfth Night or the Eve of the Epiphany or Little Christmas ). La Befana is a personification of the “spirit of the Epiphany ” and can almost be considered a nickname for “Epifania,” the proper Italian word for epiphany. While the Western Christian Church celebrates December 25th,the Eastern Christian Church to this day recognizes January 6 as the celebration of the nativity. January 6 was also kept as the physical birthday in Bethlehem.
Tradition depicts La Befana as a kindly old lady with a stereotypical nose with a big red mole on top of it and a pointy chin.Wearing an old coat mended with carefully with colorful patches and tattered shoes,she flies around on a broom and carries her black bag filled with sweets and presents for the children.Entering the houses through the chimney she places her gifts inside the children ’s stockings hung with care, the night before.The buoni ragazzi (good kids)are very happy to find their stocking filled with presents.They have been busy writing letters to La Befana, la buona strega (good witch).But for the children who have not been good, there will not be presents, but a lump of coal!
The origin of the tradition is veiled in mystery and in all likelihood this poetic figure goes
back to country legends of pre-Christian times.Befana also exists in various other popular
traditions.For instance on the evening of January 5 th ,”The Old Woman ” ((symbolizing the out going winter),Befana appears in street processions as a masked figure with her consort, “Befano “,”The Old Man “.Their followers revel as music fills the street,they receive offerings,the gift of prosperity and blessings from Befana.Then to assure a good year, the dolls are burned in effigy in the town square,welcoming the returning spring.
Her festival has usurped an ancient pagan feast set celebrated on the Magic Night,the 6th day of the New Year,chosen by ancient Eastern astronomers according to their complicated calculations. Epiphany was, therefore, pagan in origin.Only later was the day associated with the life of Christ.
Apparently there was a woman with a broom called Befana found on some Etruscan scratchings. The people in remote areas of the Emilia still call on her by that version of the name to bestow or cure malocchio (evil eye).Even la scopa (the broom)is considered a blessing against evil. In Italy tradition,however,the Christmas holidays ending on 6th January,is quite fitting for a gift-giver since the Feast of the Epiphany commemorates the visit of the Magi (or 3 Wise Men) to the infant Jesus,with their gifts of gold, frankincense,and myrrh.The Magi were named Balthazar, Melchior,and Gaspar,according to tradition.According to legend the three men during their journey stopped and asked an old woman for food and shelter.She refused and they continued on their way.Within a few hours the woman had a change of heart but the Magi were long gone.
The Befana is depicted as a witch astride a broom,still searching the world for the Baby Jesus. Thinking of the opportunity she had missed,Befana stops every child to give them a small treat in hopes that one was the Christ child.Each year on the eve of the Epiphany she sets out looking for the baby Jesus.
Many welcome La Befana by laying out a small meal for her.Consisting of sausage and
broccoli and usually accompanied by a glass of wine.After her arrival, it is a time for celebration and people move from house to house visiting friends and relatives.
This is a song used by some Italian children,a rough translation into English would be:
La Befana comes at night
In tattered shoes
Dressed in the Roman style
Long live la Befana!!
She brings cinders and coals
To the naughty children
To the good children
She brings sweets and lots of gifts.
Take frankincense, both of the best and the inferior kind,also cumin seed.Have ready a
separate scaldino (spirit bowl),which is kept only for this purpose.And should it happen that affairs of any kind go badly,fill the scaldino with glowing coals,then take three pinches of best incense and three of the second quality,and put them all ‘in fila ’ (in a row)on the threshold of the door.Then take the rest of your incense and the cumin,and put it into the burning coal,and carry it about,and wave it over the bed and in every corner,saying:
In nome del cielo!
Delle stelle e della luna!
Mi levo questo mal d ’occhio
Per mia maggior ’ fortuna!
Che mi date mal d ’occhio maladetta sia
Chi mi ha dato il maldocchio
Me lo porta via
E maggior fortuna Mi venga in casa mia!
In the name of heaven
And of the stars and moon,
May this trouble change
Should this deed be thine;
Take it away,bring luck,I pray,
Into this house of mine!
Then when all is consumed in the scaldino,light the little piles of incense on the threshold of the door, and go over it three times, and spit behind you over your shoulder three times,and say:
Chi me ha dato maldocchio!Me lo porta via
Since thou gavest this bad luck,
Carry it away!
Then pass thrice backwards and forwards before the fire,spitting over the left shoulder,and repeating the same incantation.
Looking for a place to celebrate in the typical Italian tradition…here are a few!
Paularo,Italy :La Femenate Bonfire (January 6).
Tarcento,Italy :Pignarul Giant Bonfire Festival (January 6).
Cividale,Italy :Historical Pageant and Costume Parade (January 6).
Gemona,Italy :Messa del Tallero Medieval Pageant (January 6).
Milan,Italy :Epiphany Parade of the Three Kings proceeds from the Duomo to the church of
Sant ’Eustorgio (January 6).
The legend of the Befana has had an important role in the imagination of all children of the world. Those who wish to relive the magic of the first wonders of infancy and understand the meaning and origins of this extraordinary figure,should be prepared to undertake a long voyage that will carry them back in time,to the origins of human ’s history.
This little old lady so dear to children has continued to fascinate them for centuries, and they still await her arrival on the night of her holiday.The gatherings at La Befana are filled with music, song,traditional foods, sweets and gifts.Celebration reigns supreme, with people opening their hearts by sharing love and peace in the World.
Art: James Lewicki 1956
Source: “The Legend of Old Befana “, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich,1980,by Tomie dePaola
“Etruscan Magic &Occult Remedies” by Charles Godfrey Leland,University Books,NY,1963
Befana incantation from “Etruscan Magic &Occult Remedies “, by Charles Godfrey Leland,University Books,NY,1963.
“Befana ” by Fabrisia