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Tuesday, January 3, 2017

The Italian tradition of La Befana

On the night of January 5th and during the day on January 6th in Italy we celebrate la Befana. She is an old woman who delivers gifts to children the night of January 5 in a similar way like St. Nicholas or Santa Claus, Babbo Natale in Italy.
Some people believes that the name"Befana" is derived from the Italians' mispronunciation of the Greek word  "epifania"  or  "epiphaneia" (Greek, επιφάνεια = appearance, English: epiphany ). Others  think that the name derivative of Bastrina, the gifts associated with the goddess Strina. 
There are three legends regarding the origins of the "Befana":
One tells that the Befana was approached by the biblical Magi  (“The Three Wise Men” or “The Three Kings, in Italy called "Re Magi"),  a few days before the birth of  baby Jesus. They asked for directions to where the Son of God was, as they had seen his star in the sky, but she did not know. She provided them with shelter for a night, as she was considered the best housekeeper in the village, with the most pleasant home. The Magi invited her to join them on the journey to find baby Jesus, but she declined, stating she was too busy with her housework. Later, La Befana had a change of heart, and tried to search out the astrologers and Jesus. That night she was not able to find them, so to this day, La Befana is searching for the little baby. She leaves all the good children toys and candy ("caramelle") or fruit, while the bad children get coal ("carbone"), onions or garlic.
Another Christian legend as a darker tone. It stats that La Befana was an ordinary woman with a child whom she greatly loved. Unfortunatelly her child died, and her resulting grief maddened her. Upon hearing news of Jesus being born, she set out to see him, delusional that HE was her son. She eventually met Jesus and presented him with gifts to make him happy. The infant Jesus was delighted, and he gave La Befana a gift in return : she would be the mother of every child in Italy.
An another commonly heard Christian legend of la Befana starts at the time of the birth of baby Jesus. La Befana spends her days cleaning and sweeping. One day the Magi, came to her door in search of baby Jesus. Befana turned them away because she was too busy cleaning. Later she regrets her decision and goes out in search of them. Sadly, they have long since left the area, so she fills her arms with gifts and, after climbing aboard her broomstick, she takes to the skies. She began her search for baby Jesus but never found him. La Befana still searches today, after all these centuries. On the eve of the Epiphany, La Befana comes to a house where there is a child and leaves a gift.  Although she has been unsuccessful in her search, she still leaves gifts for good young children because the Christ Child can be found in all children.
The tradition of La Befana appears to incorporate other pre-Christian popular elements as well, adapted to the Christian culture and related to the celebration of the New Year.  The old lady character should then represent the old year just passed, ready to be burned in order to give place to the new one. In many European countries the tradition still exists of burning a puppet of an old lady at the beginning of the New Year, called Giubiana in Northern Italy, with clear Celtic origins. You can see many fires an people gathering around on the night of La Befana all over the Venice region. 
We called them 'falò par brusar la vecia", fires to burn the old lady". Everybody can bring something old to burn and a big pile of stuff is build and lit up the night of the 5th. Everybody is happy and excited to burn the past ready for the new year to star.
In popular folklore La Befana visits all the children of Italy on the eve of the Feast of the Epiphany to fill their socks or stocking "la calza" with  candy and presents if they are good, or a lump of  coal or dark candy if they are bad. Traditionally, all Italian children may expect to find a lump of " coal" in their stockings (actually rock candy made black with caramel coloring), as every child has been at least occasionally bad during the year. 
Popular tradition tells that if one sees La Befana one will receive a thump from her broomstick, as she doesn't wish to be seen. This aspect of the tradition may be designed to keep children in their beds.
Being a good housekeeper, many say she will sweep the floor before she leaves. To some the sweeping meant the sweeping away of the problems of the year. The child's family typically leaves a small glass of wine and a plate with a few morsels of food, often regional or local, for the Befana.
She is usually portrayed as a hag riding a broomstick through the air wearing a black shawl  and is covered in soot because she enters the children's houses through the chimney . She is often smiling and carries a bag or a hamper filled with candy and gifts.
She is also referred to as the Christmas Witch.

The Befana is celebrated throughout all of Italy, and has become a national icon. But there are three places in Italy that are nowadays associated with the Befana tradition:

Piazza Navona in central Rome is the site of a popular market each year between Christmas and the Epiphany, where toys, sugar and sugar charcoal  and other candies are on sale. Romans believe that at the midnight January 6 the Befana shows herself from a window of Piazza Navona, and they always go there to watch her (it's a joke everybody tells while going to the feast to buy candies, toys and sweets). 

The town of Urbania in the Provincia of Pesaro e Urbino in the Marche region where the national Befana festival is held each year, usually between January 2 and 6. A "house of the Befana" is scheduled to be built and the post office has a mailbox reserved for letters addressed to the Befana, mirroring what happens with Santa Claus in Rovaniemi in Finland. 

In Fornonovo di Taro, a little town by Parma,  they held of of the 5th and 6th of January the national meeting "Raduno Nazionale delle Befane e dei Befani”, a meeting for female and male hags.

There are many popular saying regarding this celebration. One of the most popular is  ‘
"l'epifania che tutte le feste porta via" meaning "Epiphany's Day that takes away all the holidays" referring to the end of the Christmas celebrations.
And there are also many filastrocche, nursery rhymes. 
The one I have learned is:
"La Befana vien di notte
Con le scarpe tutte rotte
Col vestito alla romana
Viva, Viva La Befana!"
The English translation is:
"The Befana comes by night
With her shoes all tattered and torn
She comes dressed in the Roman way.
Long live the Befana!"

I still put my "calza", "stocking", on the Epiphany night with only difference that nowadays I filled it myself with some of my favorites candies and a little gift I buy myself  to give to myself.
I guess my inner child will never leave me when it comes to La Befana.

Buona Befana a tutti,


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