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In Italian folklore , BEFANA (pronounced ) is an old woman who delivers gifts to children throughout Italy on Epiphany Eve (the night of January 5) in a similar way to St Nicholas
St Nicholas
or Santa Claus .

A popular belief is that her name derives from the Feast of Epiphany or in Italian _La Festa dell'Epifania_. _Epifania_ (Epiphany in English) is a Latin word with Greek origins. "Epiphany" means either the "Feast of the Epiphany" (January 6) or "manifestation (of the divinity)." Some suggest that Befana
Befana
is descended from the Sabine/Roman goddess named Strenia .

In popular folklore Befana
Befana
visits all the children of Italy on the eve of the Feast of the Epiphany to fill their socks with candy and presents if they are good, or a lump of coal or dark candy if they are bad. In many poorer parts of Italy and in particular rural Sicily, a stick in a stocking was placed instead of coal. 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 hamper filled with candy, gifts, or both.

She is also referred to as the Christmas
Christmas
Witch.

CONTENTS

* 1 Legend * 2 History * 3 The Befana
Befana
today * 4 Poems and songs * 5 See also * 6 References * 7 External links

LEGEND

Christian legend had it that Befana
Befana
was approached by the biblical magi , also known as the Three Wise Men (or the three kings ) a few days before the birth of the Infant 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 the baby Jesus, but she declined, stating she was too busy with her housework. Later, La Befana
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
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 takes a slightly darker tone as La Befana was an ordinary woman with a child whom she greatly loved. However, her child died, and her resulting grief maddened her. Upon hearing news of Jesus
Jesus
being born, she set out to see him, delusional that he was her son. She eventually met Jesus
Jesus
and presented him with gifts to make him happy. The infant Jesus
Jesus
was delighted, and he gave La Befana a gift in return; she would be the mother of every child in Italy.

Popular tradition tells that if one sees La Befana
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.

Another commonly heard Christian legend of la Befana
Befana
starts at the time of the birth of baby Jesus. Befana
Befana
spends her days cleaning and sweeping. One day the magi, also known as the three wise men, came to her door in search of baby Jesus. Befana
Befana
turned them away because she was too busy cleaning. Befana
Befana
notices a bright light in the sky; she thinks this is the way to baby Jesus. She brought some baked goods and gifts for baby Jesus
Jesus
in her bag and took her broom to help the new mother clean and began her search for baby Jesus. She searched and searched for Baby Jesus, but never found him. Befana
Befana
still searches today, after all these centuries. On the eve of the Epiphany, 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.

HISTORY

Befana
Befana
was never a widespread tradition among the whole Italian people . Having originated in Rome
Rome
and having become well known and practiced by the rest of the population only during the last century, it keeps on being strongly followed prominently in the capital region and central Italy, where it was the only traditional figure giving gifts to children before Santa Claus' tradition arrived from the United States
United States
in the recent decades.

Many people believe that the name Befana
Befana
is derived from the Italians' mispronunciation of the Greek word _epifania_ or _epiphaneia_ (Greek, επιφάνεια = appearance, surface, English: epiphany ). Others point to the name being a derivative of Bastrina, the gifts associated with the goddess Strina. In the book _Domestic Life in Palestine_, by Mary E. Rogers (Poe the rites of the Pantheon passed into her 'worship, and the subtilties of the Academy into her creed.' Many pagan customs were adopted by the new Church. T. Hope, in his 'Essay on Architecture,' says: 'The Saturnalia were continued in the Carnival, and the festival with offerings to the goddess Strenia was continued in that of the New Year…'"_ – page 408

An interesting theory connects the tradition of exchanging gifts to an ancient Roman festivity in honour of Ianus and Strenia (in Italian a Christmas
Christmas
gift used to be called _strenna_), celebrated at the beginning of the year, when Romans used to give each other presents.

In the book _Vestiges of Ancient Manners and Customs, Discoverable in Modern Italy and Sicily_ by Rev. John J. Blunt (John Murray, 1823), the author says:

"This Befana
Befana
appears to be heir at law of a certain heathen goddess called Strenia, who presided over the new-year's gifts, 'Strenae,' from which, indeed, she derived her name. Her presents were of the same description as those of the Befana—figs, dates, and honey. Moreover her solemnities were vigorously opposed by the early Christians on account of their noisy, riotous, and licentious character".

The tradition of Befana
Befana
appears to incorporate other pre-Christian popular elements as well, adapted to Christian culture and related to the celebration of the New Year
New Year
. Historian Carlo Ginzburg relates her to Nicevenn . 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. Italian anthropologists Claudia and Luigi Manciocco, in their book _Una Casa Senza Porte_ (A House without Doors) trace Befana's origins back to Neolithic beliefs and practices. The team of anthropologists also wrote about Befana
Befana
as a figure that evolved into a goddess associated with fertility and agriculture.

Befana
Befana
also maintains many similarities with Perchta and her Pre-Christian Alpine traditions .

THE BEFANA TODAY

Befana
Befana
of Campomarino di Maruggio , Italy

The Befana
Befana
is celebrated throughout all of Italy, and has become a national icon. In the regions of the Marches , Umbria
Umbria
and Latium , her figure is associated with the Papal States, where the Epiphany held the most importance. Urbania is thought to be her official home. Every year there is a big festival held to celebrate the holiday. About 30,000-50,000 people attend the festivities. Hundreds of Befana’s are present, swinging from the main tower. They juggle, dance and greet all the children. 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.

Three places in Italy are nowadays associated with the Befana tradition:

* Piazza Navona
Piazza Navona
in central Rome
Rome
is the site of a popular market each year between Christmas
Christmas
and the Epiphany, where toys, sugar charcoal and other candies are on sale. The feast of the Befana
Befana
in Rome
Rome
was immortalized in four famous sonnets in the Roman dialect by the 19th century Roman poet Giuseppe Gioacchino Belli . In Ottorino Respighi
Ottorino Respighi
's 1928 Feste Romane ("Roman Festivals"), the fourth movement, titled _La Befana_, is an orchestral portrayal of this Piazza Navona
Piazza Navona
festival. Romans believe that at the midnight January 6 the Befana
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 Province of Pesaro e Urbino within the Marches , where the national Befana
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 Fornovo di Taro a little town by Parma
Parma
the national meeting "Raduno Nazionale delle Befane e dei Befani" is held the 5th and 6 January.

In other parts of the world where a vibrant Italian community exists, traditions involving Befana
Befana
may be observed and shared or celebrated with the wider community. In Toronto, Canada for example, a Befana Choir shows up on Winter Solstice each December to sing in the Kensington Market Festival of Lights parade. Women, men, and children dressed in La Befana
Befana
costume and nose sing love songs to serenade the sun to beckon its return. The singing hags gather in the street to give candy to children, to cackle and screech to accordion music, and to sing in every key imaginable as delighted parade participants join in the cacophony. Sometimes, the Befanas dance with parade goers and dust down the willing as parade goers walk by.

POEMS AND SONGS

There are poems about Befana, which are known in slightly different versions throughout Italy. Here is one of the versions:

_La Befana
Befana
vien di notte_ _Con le scarpe tutte rotte_ _Col vestito alla romana_ _Viva, Viva La Befana!_

The English translation is:

_The Befana
Befana
comes by night_ _With her shoes all tattered and torn_ _She comes dressed in the Roman way_ _Long live the Befana!_

Another version is given in a poem by Giovanni Pascoli :

_Viene, viene la Befana_ _Vien dai monti a notte fonda_ _Come è stanca! la circonda_ _Neve e gelo e tramontana!_ _Viene, viene la Befana_

The English translation is:

_Here comes, here comes the Befana_ _She comes from the mountains in the deep of the night_ _Look how tired she is! All wrapped up_ _In snow and frost and the north wind!_ _Here comes, here comes the Befana!_

SEE ALSO

* Epiphany (holiday) * Knecht Ruprecht * Krampus * Perchta * St Nicholas
St Nicholas
Day * Zwarte Piet AKA Black Pete

REFERENCES

* ^ Illes, Judika. _Encyclopedia of Spirits: The Ultimate Guide to the Magic of Fairies, Genies, Demons, Ghosts, Gods * ^ Giglio, Michael. "Taking Flight with Italy’s Holiday Witch." Spiegel Online 12 Dec, 2008. 15 Dec, 2009.. * ^ DI FILASTROCCHE.IT retrieved 2010-1-04 * ^ retrieved 2011-1-05 * ^ Tramontana (English - tramontane ) is "a classical name for a northern wind", from _tra i monti_, meaning "from the mountains"

EXTERNAL LINKS

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