La Befana story
Where other cultures have Santa Claus, or the Three Kings, in Italy, on January 6th we celebrate Epiphany, which is an official National Holiday in Italy (meaning that you’ll find most shops and banks closed), with the Befana being the symbol of this holiday.
Often portrayed as a witch, in reality, the original Befana is an old, affectionate lady moving around on her flying broomstick.
While today our first thought is that of the Harry Potter novels or movies, the broomstick used to symbolize the purification of one’s home and soul.
But first things first.
When did La Befana first appear on the scene in history?
Unfortunately, there are no reliable sources about Befana’s first appearance on the world stage, even though some of her attributes can also be found in other more recent stories (e.g. “Frau Holle” from the Grimm Brothers).
La Befana Story – A holiday celebrated for over 3000 years?
Some sources believe that the legend of the Befana is based on pagan rites around 1000-900 BC, which were then “assimilated” by the Romans (which was part of the Romans’ success, some think that big achievements like the Aqueducts and the Gladiator Games really were in reality assimilated and modified versions of Etruscan technology and culture, but that’s for a different story).
What are the origins of the name “Befana”?
Some sources claim that the name Befana is a “corruption” of the word “Epiphany” (the holiday feast). Certainly, it was already popular and used in dialect in the 14th century (especially in the region of ancient Etruria – a region where the Etruscans used to reign between Tuscany and Lazio) and was used for the first time in Italian in 1535 by Francesco Berni, an Italian writer, and poet. Some parts of Italy still use the dialect version “Pefana” up to this day.
What is La Befana and why do we celebrate it?
On January 6th, the feast of Epiphany (aka Theophany) remembers the 12th day of Christmas (in some countries known as Three Kings Day or Little Christmas).
The religious version of the story tells us that the Three Kings knocked on the door of an old woman (aka La Befana) to ask for directions to Bethlehem (where Jesus was born). They also tried to convince her to come with them to bring gifts to baby Jesus, however, she refused.
Shortly after she did regret her decision, gathered up some gifts, and tried to catch up with the Three Kings, who were nowhere to be found.
So she started knocking on every door and gifted something to every child, to make up for the missed opportunity to bring her gift to Jesus.
That’s why today children still hang out a sock outside of their room today January 6th, so that La Befana can leave them a gift as she passes by. According to tradition, the child will find sweets and gifts in the socks if it behaved well, and coal if it misbehaved.
Where is the La Befana Holiday celebrated?
While the origins of La Befana are being attributed to Etruria, and later Rome, there are local variations of the La Befana holiday all over Italy, including Naples and Venice.
La Befana celebration in Rome:
In Rome, after a two-year break due to the pandemic, the traditional parade from Castel S. Angelo to Saint Peter’s Square returns in 2023.
Hiking, nature, and the outdoors are all connected to local culture, legends and myths. With blog posts like this one, I try to share Italian folklore and culture with a wider, international audience.
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